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Tokyo Olympics rescheduled for July 23-Aug. 8 in 2021

March 30, 2020

TOKYO (AP) — The Tokyo Olympics will open next year in the same time slot scheduled for this year’s games. Tokyo organizers said Monday the opening ceremony will take place on July 23, 2021 — almost exactly one year after the games were due to start this year.

“The schedule for the games is key to preparing for the games,” Tokyo organizing committee president Yoshiro Mori said. “This will only accelerate our progress.” Last week, the IOC and Japanese organizers postponed the Olympics until 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic.

This year’s games were scheduled to open on July 24 and close on Aug. 9. But the near exact one-year delay will see the rescheduled closing ceremony on Aug. 8. There had been talk of switching the Olympics to spring, a move that would coincide with the blooming of Japan’s famous cherry blossoms. But it would also clash with European soccer and North American sports leagues.

Mori said a spring Olympics was considered but holding the games later gives more space to complete the many qualifying events that have been postponed by the virus outbreak. “We wanted to have more room for the athletes to qualify,” Mori said.

After holding out for weeks, local organizers and the IOC last week postponed the Tokyo Games under pressure from athletes, national Olympic bodies and sports federations. It’s the first postponement in Olympic history, though there were several cancellations during wartime.

The Paralympics were rescheduled to Aug. 24-Sept. 5. The new Olympic dates would conflict with the scheduled world championships in track and swimming, but those events are now expected to also be pushed back.

“The IOC has had close discussions with the relevant international federations,” organizing committee CEO Toshiro Muto said. “I believe the IFs have accepted the games being held in the summer.” Muto said the decision was made Monday and the IOC said it was supported by all the international sports federations and was based on three main considerations: to protect the health of athletes, to safeguard the interests of the athletes and Olympic sport, and the international sports calendar.

“These new dates give the health authorities and all involved in the organisation of the Games the maximum time to deal with the constantly changing landscape and the disruption caused by the COVID-19 pandemic,” the IOC said. “The new dates … also have the added benefit that any disruption that the postponement will cause to the international sports calendar can be kept to a minimum, in the interests of the athletes and the IFs.”

Both Mori and Muto have said the cost of rescheduling the Olympics will be “massive” — local reports estimate billions of dollars — with most of the expenses borne by Japanese taxpayers. Muto promised transparency in calculating the costs, and testing times deciding how they are divided up.

“Since it (the Olympics) were scheduled for this summer, all the venues had given up hosting any other events during this time, so how do we approach that?” Muto asked. “In addition, there will need to be guarantees when we book the new dates, and there is a possibility this will incur rent payments. So there will be costs incurred and we will need to consider them one by one. I think that will be the tougher process.”

Katsuhiro Miyamoto, an emeritus professor of sports economics at Kansai University, puts the costs as high as $4 billion. That would cover the price of maintaining stadiums, refitting them, paying rentals, penalties and other expenses.

Japan is officially spending $12.6 billion to organize the Olympics. However, an audit bureau of the Japanese government says the costs are twice that much. All of the spending is public money except $5.6 billion from a privately funded operating budget.

The Switzerland-based International Olympic Committee is contributing $1.3 billion, according to organizing committee documents. The IOC’s contribution goes into the operating budget. IOC President Thomas Bach has repeatedly called the Tokyo Olympics the best prepared in history. However, Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso also termed them “cursed.” Aso competed in shooting in the 1976 Olympics, and was born in 1940.

The Olympics planned for 1940 in Tokyo were canceled because of World War II. The run-up to the Olympics also saw IOC member Tsunekazu Takeda, who also headed the Japanese Olympic Committee, forced to resign last year amid a bribery scandal.

A virus rages, a flame goes out: Tokyo Games reset for 2021

March 25, 2020

(AP) Not even the Summer Olympics could withstand the force of the coronavirus. After weeks of hedging, the IOC took the unprecedented step of postponing the world’s biggest sporting event, a global extravaganza that’s been cemented into the calendar for more than a century.

The Tokyo Games, slated for 11,000 athletes from more than 200 countries and at a reported cost of $28 billion, had been scheduled to start July 24. They will now be pushed into 2021 on dates to be determined.

They will still be called the 2020 Olympics — a symbolic gesture that the International Olympic Committee hopes will allow the games to “stand as a beacon of hope,” as it stated in delivering the news Tuesday.

“I don’t think anybody was really prepared for this virus happening,” said American sprinter Noah Lyles, who had been primed to be one of the world’s breakout stars in Tokyo. “You look over the history of the Olympics and see that it’s usually war that’s stopped the Olympics from happening.”

Only World War I and World War II have forced the Olympics to be canceled; they were scrubbed in 1916, 1940 and 1944. Now, a microscopic virus that is wreaking havoc with daily life around the planet, to say nothing of its sports schedule, has accomplished what no other virus (Zika in 2016), act of terrorism (the killing of Israelis in Munich in 1972), boycott (1980 and 1984), threat of war (frequent) or actual world war itself has managed to do: postpone the games and push them into an odd-numbered year.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death. The global pandemic has sickened at least 420,000 people and killed more than 18,000 worldwide, according to Johns Hopkins University.

Four-time Olympic hockey champion Hayley Wickenheiser, the first IOC member to criticize the body’s long-held, dug-in refusal to change the dates, called the postponement the “message athletes deserved to hear.”

“To all the athletes: take a breath, regroup, take care of yourself and your families. Your time will come,” she wrote on Twitter. When will that time be? Nobody knows yet. It was a big part of the reason the IOC refused to announce a postponement that was becoming more inevitable with each passing day. Major sports organizations, including World Athletics and the gymnastics, track and swimming federations in the United States, were calling for a delay. So were major countries, including Canada, Brazil and Australia.

Even more compellingly, athletes were raising their voices. They were speaking to the unfairness of not being able to train, fearful that a trip out of the house could put them, or someone in their hometown, in jeopardy. And what of their competitors, some living halfway around the world, who might not have as many restrictions, and could be getting a leg up? There were fears about the eroding anti-doping protocols caused by virus-related restrictions and qualifying procedures that were disintegrating before their eyes.

“A bittersweet victory for athletes,” one group, Global Athlete, called the decision. “On one hand, their Olympic dreams have been put on hold. On the other hand, athletes have shown their power when they work together as a collective.”

With IOC President Thomas Bach guiding the process, the committee had said as recently as Sunday that it might take up to four weeks for an announcement to come. It took two days. But make no mistake, there are still weeks of difficult planning ahead.

Many of Tokyo’s arenas, stadiums and hotels are under contract for a games held from July 24 to Aug. 9. Remaking those arrangements is doable, but will come at a cost. There are also considerations beyond the top-line price tag. Among them: The $1 billion-plus the IOC was to receive from broadcast partner NBC; the millions in smaller athlete endorsement contracts that are now in limbo; the budgets of the individual national Olympic committees; the availability of the 80,000 volunteers who signed up to help.

“People are having a problem calling off weddings, and calling off little tournaments, so imagine with all the billions of dollars that’s gone into this,” five-time Olympian Kerri Walsh Jennings told The Associated Press. “They have a grieving process to go through. They have so many moving parts to think about.”

There’s also the matter of the international sports schedule. Nearly all 33 sports on the Olympic program have key events, including world championships, on the docket for 2021. Hayward Field at the University of Oregon was rebuilt and expanded at the cost of around $200 million to hold next year’s track and field world championships. Now that event will likely be rescheduled.

“Of course there’s going to be challenges,” said Paul Doyle, an agent who represents about 50 Olympic athletes. “At the same time, this is what had to happen.” It came together during a meeting Tuesday among Bach, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and a handful of other executives from the IOC and Japan’s organizing committee.

Among the first casualties of the IOC’s impeccably curated timeline was the torch relay. Organizers were planning to start the journey through the host country in the northeast prefecture of Fukushima on Thursday, albeit with no fans and no torchbearer. Instead, the flame will be stored and displayed, with its next move to be determined later.

Just one of hundreds of difficult changes the IOC leaders have to make in the upcoming weeks and months. But the most difficult decision is behind them. The unspoken irony in it all is that when Japan was awarded the games in 2013, it came on the strength of a campaign in which it positioned itself as “the safe pair of hands.” It was a time when the world was still emerging from the Great Recession, and the Olympic movement was especially sensitive to the runaway expenses the Summer Games were incurring.

Japan, like every host before it, had trouble sticking to the budget. Nevertheless, seven years later, and through no fault of its own — in fact, Japan is one of the countries that appears to be avoiding the worst of the coronavirus — Tokyo residents are watching their grand plans for 2020 implode.

So, onto 2021. As far as the Olympic world — and perhaps the world at large — is concerned, it can’t get here soon enough.

Also contributing: Stephen Wade and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo, Pat Graham in Denver, Paul Newberry in Atlanta, Graham Dunbar in Geneva, Janie McCauley in San Francisco and Jimmy Golen in Boston.

MLB delays opening day by at least 2 weeks because of virus

March 12, 2020

NEW YORK (AP) — Major League Baseball delayed the start of its season by at least two weeks because of the coronavirus outbreak and suspended the rest of its spring training game schedule. Opening day had been scheduled for March 26. The decision announced by Commissioner Rob Manfred on Thursday left open whether each team would still play a 162-game schedule.

“It’s unfortunate but I think it’s the proper measure we need to take now given the situation the country’s in and the world’s in,” New York Yankees slugger Giancarlo Stanton said. “It’s important to know that some things are bigger than baseball, bigger than sports at the moment. Once we’re able to hopefully get a hold on some things and get some questions answered we can figure out when things can continue.”

The announcement came while some spring training games in Florida were still in progress. MLB followed the NBA, NHL, MLS and college basketball tournaments in altering its schedule because of the pandemic. The minor league baseball season, which was to start April 9, also was being delayed.

“We’re ultimately all people, we all love the game of baseball but this is a far bigger issue for all of us right now, and we’re trying to work our way through it together,” Seattle Mariners owner John Stanton said at the team’s camp in Peoria, Arizona.

“I believe that this is going to be something that will have a lot more twists and turns to it. I don’t have a high degree of confidence that we will start on April 9,” he said. MLB had continued to play into Thursday, two weeks before openers at Dodger Stadium, Camden Yards and other parks. But baseball changed course after Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis said at a morning news conference he had strongly recommended to local authorities and organizers that they limit all mass gatherings.

“MLB and the clubs have been preparing a variety of contingency plans regarding the 2020 regular season schedule,” the baseball commissioner’s office said in a statement. “MLB will announce the effects on the schedule at an appropriate time and will remain flexible as events warrant, with the hope of resuming normal operations as soon as possible.”

MLB had not had a mass postponement of openers since 1995, when the season was shortened from 162 games to 144 following a 7 1/2-month players’ strike that also wiped out the 1994 World Series. Opening day was pushed back from April 2 to April 26. Player salaries were reduced by 11.1% in 1995 because the games were lost due to a strike.

Players with big league contracts likely will be allowed to leave spring training and go home if they want to, but no decision on that was made public. After a 32-day spring training lockout in 1990 caused opening day to be delayed a week until April 9, the season was extended by three days to allow each team a full 162-game schedule.

Baseball’s first strike lasted from April 1-13 in 1972, and the season started April 15. Teams played 153-156 games. This year marked the earliest opening day other than for international games. As it stood, Game 7 of the World Series would’ve been Oct. 28.

The Texas Rangers had been looking forward to the opening of their new retractable-roof ballpark, Globe Life Field, first with an exhibition game against St. Louis on March 23. The formal opener had been scheduled for March 31 against the Los Angeles Angels.

If regular-season games are lost this year, MLB could attempt to reduce salaries by citing paragraph 11 of the Uniform Player’s Contract, which covers national emergencies. The announcement Thursday said the decision was made “due to the national emergency created by the coronavirus pandemic.”

“This contract is subject to federal or state legislation, regulations, executive or other official orders or other governmental action, now or hereafter in effect respecting military, naval, air or other governmental service, which may directly or indirectly affect the player, club or the league,” every Uniform Player’s Contract states.

The provision also states the agreement is “subject also to the right of the commissioner to suspend the operation of this contract during any national emergency during which Major League Baseball is not played.”

Spring training games were suspended as of 4 p.m. EDT Thursday. Qualifying games for the 2021 World Baseball Classic also were called off.

AP freelance writers Mark Didtler and Jose M. Romero contributed to this report.

Kobe Bryant, daughter killed in copter crash, 7 others dead

January 27, 2020

CALABASAS, Calif. (AP) — NBA legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others were killed Sunday when their helicopter plunged into a steep hillside in dense morning fog in Southern California, his sudden death at age 41 touching off an outpouring of grief for a star whose celebrity transcended basketball.

The chopper went down in Calabasas, about 30 miles (48 kilometers) northwest of downtown Los Angeles. Authorities said nine people were aboard and presumed dead. Bryant, an all-time basketball great who spent his entire 20-year career with the Los Angeles Lakers, was among the victims, a person familiar with the situation told The Associated Press.

Bryant’s 13-year-old daughter, Gianna, also was killed, a different person familiar with the case said. Los Angeles County Sheriff Alex Villanueva would not confirm the identities of the victims Sunday pending official word from the coroner.

“God bless their souls,” Villanueva said at a news conference. The cause of the crash was unknown. News of the charismatic superstar’s death rocketed around the sports and entertainment worlds, with many taking to Twitter to register their shock, disbelief and anguish.

“Words can’t describe the pain I am feeling. I loved Kobe — he was like a little brother to me,” retired NBA great Michael Jordan said. “We used to talk often, and I will miss those conversations very much. He was a fierce competitor, one of the greats of the game and a creative force.”

NBA players were in tears during pregame warm-ups as crowds chanted “Kobe! Kobe!” Tiger Woods was unaware of the news during his final round at Torrey Pines in San Diego when he started hearing the gallery yell “Do it for Mamba,” referring to Bryant by his nickname.

The medical examiner’s office said specialists were working at the scene to recover the bodies, and investigators were trying to confirm identities. Federal transportation safety investigators were en route.

Bryant’s helicopter left Santa Ana shortly after 9 a.m. and circled for a time just east of Interstate 5, near Glendale. Air traffic controllers noted poor visibility around Burbank, just to the north, and Van Nuys, to the northwest.

After holding up the helicopter for other aircraft, they cleared the Sikorsky S-76 to proceed north along Interstate 5 through Burbank before turning west to follow U.S Route 101, the Ventura Highway.

Shortly after 9:40 a.m., the helicopter turned again, toward the southeast, and climbed to more than 2,000 feet above sea level. It then descended and crashed into the hillside at about 1,400 feet, according to data from Flightradar24.

When it struck the ground, the helicopter was flying at about 160 knots (184 mph) and descending at a rate of more than 4,000 feet per minute, the Flightradar24 data showed. At the time of the crash, the Los Angles County Sheriff’s Department had grounded its own helicopters because of the poor weather conditions. The impact scattered debris over an area about the size of a football field, Villanueva said.

Among other things, investigators will look at the pilot’s history, the chopper’s maintenance history, and the records of its owner and operator, NTSB board member Jennifer Homendy said at a news conference.

Justin Green, an aviation attorney in New York who flew helicopters in the Marine Corps, said weather may have contributed to the crash. Pilots can become disoriented in low visibility, losing track of which direction is up. Green said a pilot flying an S-76 would be instrument-rated, meaning they could fly the helicopter without relying on visual cues from outside.

All around the world, people were glued to their phones and TV screens as news of the crash spread and networks broke into programming with live coverage. A visibly shaken LeBron James wiped his eyes with tissues and walked away alone from the Lakers plane that had just landed in Southern California.

Thousands of people gathered to mourn Bryant outside the Staples Center in downtown Los Angeles. Mourners in No. 24 jerseys mixed with those in fancy dress arriving at the downtown arena for Sunday evening’s Grammy Awards.

People carried flowers and chanted “Kobe!” and “MVP!” under giant video screens showing Bryant’s smiling face. “This is where we needed to be,” said Naveen Cheerath, 31. Bryant retired in 2016 as the third-leading scorer in NBA history, finishing two decades with the Lakers as a prolific shot-maker with a sublime all-around game and a relentless competitive ethic. He held that spot in the league scoring ranks until Saturday night, when the Lakers’ James passed him for third place during a game in Philadelphia, Bryant’s hometown.

“Continuing to move the game forward (at)KingJames,” Bryant wrote in his last tweet. “Much respect my brother.” Bryant had one of the greatest careers in recent NBA history and became one of the game’s most popular players as the face of the 16-time NBA champion Lakers franchise. He was the league MVP in 2008 and a two-time NBA scoring champion, and he earned 12 selections to the NBA’s All-Defensive teams.

He teamed with O’Neal in a combustible partnership to lead the Lakers to consecutive NBA titles in 2000, 2001 and 2002. His Lakers tenure was marred by scandal, when in 2003, Bryant was accused of raping a 19-year-old employee at a Colorado resort. He said the two had consensual sex, and prosecutors later dropped the felony sexual assault charge at the request of the accuser. The woman later filed a civil suit against Bryant that was settled out of court.

Bryant went on to win two more titles in 2009 and 2010, and retired in 2016 after scoring 60 points in his final NBA game. After leaving the game, Bryant had more time to play coach to daughter Gianna, who had a budding basketball career of her own and, her father said, wanted to one day play in the WNBA. They were seen sitting courtside at a Brooklyn Nets game late last year, Bryant clearly passing along his wisdom to his daughter. He regularly showcased her talents on the court on social media.

Bryant’s death was felt particularly painfully in Los Angeles, where he was unquestionably the most popular athlete and one of the city’s most beloved public figures. Hundreds of fans — many in Bryant jerseys and Lakers gear — spontaneously gathered at Staples Center and in the surrounding LA Live entertainment complex, weeping and staring at video boards with Bryant’s image.

Among those killed were John Altobelli, head coach of Southern California’s Orange Coast College baseball team, his wife, Keri, and daughter, Alyssa, who played on the same team as Bryant’s daughter, said his brother, Tony, who is the sports information director at the school.

The National Transportation Safety Board typically issues a preliminary report within about 10 days that will give a rough summary of what investigators have learned. A ruling on the cause can take a year or more.

Colin Storm was in his living room in Calabasas when he heard what sounded to him like a low-flying airplane or helicopter. “Ït was very foggy so we couldn’t see anything,” he said. “But then we heard some sputtering and then a boom.”

The fog cleared a bit, and Storm could see smoke rising from the hillside in front of his home. Firefighters hiked in with medical equipment and hoses, and medical personnel rappelled to the site from a helicopter, but found no survivors, Los Angeles County Fire Chief Daryl Osby said.

Associated Press writers Christopher Weber in Los Angeles, David Koenig in Dallas, Mark J. Terrill and John Antczak in Calabasas, Tim Reynolds in Miami and Michael Rubinkam in northeastern Pennsylvania contributed to this report.

Downtown Tokyo’s homeless fear removal ahead of Olympics

January 23, 2020

TOKYO (AP) — Shelters made of cardboard start popping up in the basement of Tokyo’s Shinjuku train station right before the shutters come down at 11 p.m., in corridors where “salarymen” rushing home and couples on late-night dates have just passed by.

Dozens of homeless people sleeping rough in such spots worry that with Japan’s image at stake authorities will force them to move ahead of the Olympics. Already, security officials have warned them they will likely have to find less visible locations by the end of March.

The former laborers, clerical workers and others sleeping in cardboard boxes are a not-quite-invisible glimpse of a more pervasive but largely hidden underclass of poor in Japan, a wealthy nation seen as orderly and middle class.

Efforts to clean up what some see as urban blight have preceded every recent Olympics, including those in Beijing, London and Rio de Janeiro. Tokyo city officials deny they are moving to force the homeless out specially for the Olympics. They say trying to get them into shelters is part of an overall welfare effort to get them off the streets and find them jobs and housing.

“There is nothing more than the programs we already have in place to help the homeless,” said Emi Yaginuma, a Tokyo city official in charge of such programs. “We keep trying by making the rounds and talking to them, but all we can do is to try to persuade them.”

In theory, overnight sleeping at train stations is trespassing. In practice, the homeless have long slept in Shinjuku station and other spots. JR East, a major train company servicing Tokyo, doesn’t have regulations on the homeless and employees handle situations as they come up, such as passenger complaints.

Just as the homeless arrive for the night, a public speaker overhead is warning that sleeping in the station isn’t allowed. As preparations for the Olympics began years ago, homeless people camping in a park in Tokyo’s Shibuya were forced out to make way for development and a soup kitchen program there was moved to another, less visible park nearby. Advocates for the homeless fear that was just the start.

Homeless people were evicted in 2016 from a park near where the New National Stadium was built, the main arena for the Olympics. Like the U.S., Japan has a relatively high poverty rate for a wealthy nation. It also is less generous with social welfare than countries in Europe, and lacks the sorts of private charities prevalent in the U.S.

Nearly 16% of Japanese fall below the poverty rate, with annual income below the cutoff of 1.2 million yen ($11,000), according to 2017 Japanese government data. The poverty rate for single-adult households with children is way higher, at 51%.

The unraveling of extended family support networks and job insecurity have left many in Japan vulnerable to setbacks that can lead to homelessness. Japan’s culture of conformity leaves many, including families, ashamed to seek help.

Most of the homeless sleeping underground in Shinjuku, a glitzy shopping area fringed by red-light districts, high-rise offices and parks, are older men. Shigeyoshi Tozawa has a lacquer begging bowl with a few coins, three tiny, solar-powered toy figures with bobbing heads bought at a 100-yen ($1) store, and various bags filled with blankets, clothes and other items, including his poems.

“Last night/ dream of a future trip/ it is dark,” goes one poem. Passersby sometimes give him money for the poems, he says. “This is my community. We all help each other,” Tozawa said. “There are no dirty homeless here. We are all ‘trendy.’”

In what’s clearly a routine, he and the others quietly prepare for the night, picking their favorite spots, neatly folding blankets. Some change into sleepwear and wipe their feet clean with wet towels, daintily placing their shoes beside their lopsided cardboard shelters.

Tozawa and the others are relatively well-dressed, in handout down jackets, baseball caps and camouflage sweatpants. Some have cell phones and other gadgets. Many have some money in the bank. They get by making the rounds of downtown soup kitchens run by church and volunteer charities, and other spots where they can get free rice balls or sandwiches.

Many of those sleeping rough are “working poor,” said Daisaku Seto, who works for a nonprofit for refugees and a consumers’ food cooperative called Palsystem. He says some suffer psychological trauma and need training to get better-paying jobs. Once they drop into poverty, they rarely find their way back out.

“We need to come up with ways to help that empower them,” said Seto, who is a leader in a one of the leaders of a grassroots group called the Anti-Poverty Network. Yukio Takazawa, executive director of a support group for the poor in Yokohama’s Kotobukicho, an area of flophouses where homeless people also tend to congregate, worries the worst is to come.

The construction boom from the Olympics will be winding down, reducing chances for odd jobs for day laborers. The younger poor, who now spend nights in Internet cafes, likely will eventually end up on the streets, said Takazawa, who has been working with the poor for 30 years.

Finding affordable housing in Tokyo is tough. Rents are high and landlords tend to be finicky. Just getting a rental contract can require six months of rent or more up front. Those unable or unwilling to get apartments camp along river banks, in parks and train stations. Welfare offices try to get people to move into shelters but many, like former construction worker Masanori Ito, resist. “They have rules,” he said, munching on sandwiches he got from a volunteer.

If he has to move, Ito said he plans to find some other warm outdoor spot. “I don’t know where we will all move next,” he said.

International Swimming League expanding to Tokyo, Toronto

December 22, 2019

LAS VEGAS (AP) — The International Swimming League is expanding for its second season next year. The pro league that featured over 100 Olympians will add teams in Tokyo and Toronto, bringing the number of clubs to 10. Five will comprise the Europe-Asia group with the other five in the U.S.

The season will begin in September, a month after the Tokyo Olympics end, and run until April 2021. There will be breaks in December and March for other events on the world swimming calendar. A total of 27 matches — a minimum of 10 per club — will be held, including regular season, playoffs and the grand finale.

“If we want to be a league, we have to act like a league,” said ISL managing director Andrea Di Nino, who promised an increase in prize money and the salary cap for each team. The ISL held six meets in its first season and staged its grand finale in Las Vegas, where the expansion was announced Saturday. Europe-based Energy Standard won the championship and its 28 members split $100,000.

The 3,800-seat Mandalay Bay Events Center wasn’t filled either day, although there were noticeably more people on Saturday for the music and spotlight-filled event featuring finals only over two hours.

“It was a great show for everybody,” said Di Nino, who was open to the possibility of returning to Vegas for the finale. “Next year is going to be even better. Of course, we’re looking to improve and look at our mistakes.”

Retired four-time Olympic gold medalist Kosuke Kitajima will represent the Tokyo entry, which has yet to be named. “I’m very happy to be given this big opportunity for swimming,” Kitajima, who attended the finale, said through a translator. “When I was first approached about this opportunity I was very happy, but I was thinking why didn’t you come to me in the beginning. I hope a lot of Japanese swimmers will be able to participate.”

Daiya Seto was the only Japanese swimmer who competed in the ISL’s first season, and he only swam the finale for winning Energy Standard. He set a world short-course record in the 400-meter individual medley on Friday, which was streamed live in Japan.

“Japan is one of the world’s leading swimming nations with a large fan base, so we expect to see a very competitive team be developed there and many fans excited to learn of our plans,” ISL founder Konstantin Grigorishin said in a statement.

Robert Kent, an investment banker and former swimmer, will head the Toronto entry, which also has yet to be named. Thirteen Canadian swimmers competed in the ISL this year, including Olympic gold medalist Penny Oleksiak and two-time world champion Kylie Masse. CBC Sports offered broadcast and live streaming coverage throughout the season.

Tokyo and Toronto will join Europe-based Aqua Centurions, Energy Standard, Iron and London Roar, along with Cali Condors, DC Trident, LA Current and NY Breakers in the U.S.

Police, protesters clash outside Barcelona-Real Madrid game

December 18, 2019

BARCELONA, Spain (AP) — Riot police clashed with protesters in the streets Wednesday night outside a soccer match between Barcelona and Real Madrid, as authorities sought to keep Catalonia’s separatist movement from disrupting the game viewed by 650 million people worldwide.

The match in Barcelona’s Camp Nou stadium began without incident and was halted only briefly when some fans threw balls onto the field bearing a message for the Spanish government to open a dialogue with the separatists.

The game, which drew nearly 100,000 spectators, ended in a scoreless draw. Thousands of police and private security guards were deployed in and around stadium. In the street clashes, riot police used batons to force the crowd back, some threw objects at officers lined up behind shields and other protesters fought among themselves. Authorities said nine people had been arrested, and Spain’s national news agency Efe reported that 12 were injured.

At least four plastic trash cans were set on fire, and a smell of smoke wafted into the Camp Nou. When the game ended, fans were directed to leave on the stadium’s south side to avoid the clashes outside.

The separatists sought to promote their independence bid by using the media coverage of the game between Barcelona, the Spanish league leader, and its fierce rival Real Madrid. Known as El Clásico, the game was postponed from Oct. 26 amid violent protests by the separatists.

As crowds entered Europe’s largest soccer stadium Wednesday night, security guards confiscated masks of Barcelona’s Argentine star Lionel Messi from supporters, apparently to ensure they could be identified on closed-circuit cameras if they broke the law.

As the game began, some fans held up blue signs saying ‘Spain, Sit and Talk” and “FREEDOM.” Others chanted, in Catalan, “Freedom for the Political Prisoners.” Those messages referred to the Spanish government’s refusal to discuss the wealthy northeastern region’s independence, as well as the recent imprisonment of nine of the movement’s leaders convicted for their roles in a failed 2017 secession bid.

A shadowy online group called Tsunami Democratic, which was behind the protest, had posted a message on social media saying: “Hello, world! Tonight Tsunami has a message for you.” Protest organizers said over 25,000 people signed up to demonstrate near the stadium in Barcelona, Catalonia’s capital, although it was hard to distinguish between protesters and fans.

There was a festive atmosphere before the game, though some protesters briefly blocked main roads to the stadium. The Barcelona team asked its fans to behave with civility and not to affect the match.

Francisco Sánchez, a 60-year-old mechanic, was outside Camp Nou hours before the match. He did not have a ticket, but was one of several protesters who distributed small blue banners with the message urging Spain to begin a dialogue.

“I hope this movement will make our leaders realize that they have to lay off the law and start taking,” he said. “This can’t be solved with violence, but through words.” Miguel Ángel Giménez, a 42-year-old policeman in a Barcelona shirt and scarf, drove with a friend over 700 kilometers (430 miles) from the southern region of Murcia to attend the match.

“Our friends back home told us we were crazy to cross half of Spain to go to a game that might not be played,” he said, adding that “everything is quite calm. There is lots of security.” The U.S. Consulate in Barcelona advised people to avoid the area or use caution if near it.

Henrik Noerrelund, a 55-year-old electrician from Denmark, flew in with his wife to attend his first Barcelona match after a lifetime supporting the club. “In my parts, they used to say politics and football don´t mix, but today you have to accept it,” Noerrelund said. “It’s there, you cannot separate it, you have seen it for many years, and I don’t think they can manage to separate it and just play football.”

Separatist sentiment grew sharply in Catalonia during the global recession that hit Spain hard. The 7.5 million residents of Catalonia are about equally divided by the secession question, according to polls and election results.

Separatists have used the Camp Nou stadium as a protest platform for years. They shout “Independence!” at a set time during matches and sometimes unfurl banners. The Barcelona team has walked a fine line between supporting its fans’ right to free expression and aligning itself with the greater interests of Catalonia. Many feel it does not fully support secession so as not to anger its Catalan fans who are not separatists or its millions of supporters across Spain.

With its slogan “More than a club,” it presents itself as a Catalan institution, aligned with the region’s proud cultural traditions and language, which is spoken along with Spanish in the semi-autonomous region.

Its rivalry with Real Madrid has a decades-old political undercurrent, with many Catalans seeing the capital’s team as a symbol of domineering, central power and a hallmark of Spanish unity and authority.

Madrid supporters, in turn, see Barcelona as representing a traitorous region that wants to break up Spain. For many years, some Barcelona fans held up a massive banner at games that read “Catalonia is not Spain.”

Players from both teams usually get along. The Spanish national team that won the 2010 World Cup and two European Championships was packed with players from both sides. Security is always high whenever they play — just like at many soccer matches between fierce rivals — but there is no history of violence at the games.

Tsunami Democratic carried out its first major action in October when it organized a large protest after several of the secession movement’s leaders were sentenced to jail for their role in a failed secession bid in 2017.

A call by Tsunami Democratic led to thousands of angry protesters gathering at Barcelona’s airpor t. A street battle broke out between the most radical protesters and police inside and outside the terminal, and about 150 flights were canceled as ground transport was halted for hours. Protests by separatists left more than 500 people injured, half of them police.

Hatton reported from Lisbon, Portugal. Associated Press writers Joseph Wilson in Barcelona and Ciaran Giles in Madrid contributed.

UEFA closes Bulgaria stadium for fan racism at England game

October 29, 2019

NYON, Switzerland (AP) — Bulgaria was punished Tuesday for the Nazi salutes and racist chanting of its soccer fans with an order to play a European Championship qualifying game in an empty stadium, although the team avoided expulsion from the competition.

UEFA’s options to deal with the incidents in Sofia at a Euro 2020 qualifier against England could have removed Bulgaria from the playoffs in March. The UEFA disciplinary panel also put Bulgaria on probation for two years, which should include most of the 2022 World Cup qualifying program. A repeat offense will trigger a stadium closure for a second competitive game.

Bulgaria fans made Nazi salutes and targeted monkey noises at England’s black players during a 6-0 loss two weeks ago. The game was twice stopped by the referee following UEFA guidelines to address discrimination.

The Bulgarian soccer federation was fined 85,000 euros ($94,000), including the mandated 50,000 euros ($55,500) for a second charge of racist behavior. A charge of fans throwing objects was also proven.

Although the England game was the third time Bulgaria fans were guilty of racist behavior this year, the previous incidents at back-to-back Euro 2020 qualifiers in June were judged together in July. UEFA’s disciplinary code states a team will be punished for a second offense with “one match played behind closed doors and a fine of 50,000 euros.”

A third offense “is punished with more than one match behind closed doors, a stadium closure, the forfeiting of a match, the deduction of points and/or disqualification from the competition,” according to UEFA rules.

Bulgaria’s next home game is against the Czech Republic on Nov. 17. The stadium closure will likely cost the national soccer body at least 100,000 euros ($110,000) in lost revenue. Bulgaria drew about 5,000 fans for home games against Kosovo and Montenegro, then more than 17,000 to see England.

Bulgaria is last in Group A with no chance to advance to Euro 2020 by finishing in the top places. However, the sanctions do not affect Bulgaria’s second chance to reach the final tournament from the playoff round in March. Potential playoff opponents include Iceland and Scotland.

A UEFA charge of Bulgaria fans causing disturbance during the national anthem for England accounted for 10,000 euros ($11,100) of the 85,000 euros ($94,000) fine. The English Football Association was fined 5,000 euros ($5,500) for a similar charge.

Hong Kong soccer fans loudly boo Chinese national anthem

September 11, 2019

HONG KONG (AP) — Thousands of Hong Kong soccer fans booed loudly and turned their backs when the Chinese national anthem was played before a World Cup qualifier match against Iran on Tuesday, taking the city’s months of protests into the sports realm.

The crowd broke out into “Glory to Hong Kong,” a song reflecting their campaign for more democratic freedoms in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory. After the match started, fans chanted “Fight for freedom” and “Revolution of our Times.” One person carried a blue poster that read, “Hong Kong is not China.”

Hong Kong has been roiled by protests since June over an extradition bill that would have sent some residents to mainland China for trial. The government promised last week to withdraw the bill but that failed to placate the protesters, whose demands now include democratic reforms and police accountability.

Security at the Hong Kong Stadium was tight, with fans frisked to ensure they did not bring in political materials and other prohibited items. Iran, Asia’s top team, had sought to move the match, citing safety concerns over the unrest, but the request was rejected by FIFA, soccer’s governing body.

Stadium announcers said 14,000 spectators attended the game. Iran beat Hong Kong 2-0. “Hong Kong people are united. We will speak up for freedom and democracy,” one of the spectators, Leo Fan, said as members of the crowd continued to chant slogans and sing protest songs as they left.

In July, Hong Kong fans chanted slogans and waved banners when English Premier League champions Manchester City played local team Kitchee at the stadium. Many see the extradition bill as a glaring example of the city’s eroding autonomy since the former British colony returned to Chinese control in 1997. Clashes have become increasingly violent, with police firing tear gas after protesters vandalized subway stations, set street fires and blocked traffic over the weekend.

Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam renewed an appeal to protesters earlier Tuesday to “say no to violence” and engage in dialogue, as the city’s richest man urged the government to provide a way out for the mostly young demonstrators.

Lam said the escalation of violence, in which more than 150 people including students have been detained in clashes since Friday, will deepen rifts and prolong the road to recovery. She said her decision to formally withdraw the extradition bill and her other initiatives reflected her sincerity to heal society by initiating a direct dialogue with various communities, including protesters.

Billionaire Li Ka Shing, in a video broadcast on local TV, described the summer of unrest as the worst catastrophe since World War II. In his first public comments, Li called youths the “masters of our future” and said the government should temper justice with mercy in resolving the crisis.

“I am very worried. We hope Hong Kong people will be able to ride out the storm. We hope the young people can consider the big picture and those at the helm can give the masters of our future a way out,” Li, 91, told a religious gathering outside a Buddhist temple over the weekend.

Asked about Li’s comments, Lam agreed that the government “can do more and can do better” especially in meeting young people to hear their grievances. But she stressed the government cannot condone violence and will strictly enforce the law.

The unrest has become the biggest challenge to Beijing’s rule since it took over Hong Kong and is an embarrassment to its ruling Communist Party ahead of Oct. 1 celebrations of its 70th year in power. Beijing has slammed the protests as an effort by criminals to split the territory from China, backed by what it said were hostile foreigners.

Beijing rebuked Germany on Tuesday for allowing prominent Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong to visit “to engage in anti-China separatist activities.” Wong met Foreign Minister Heiko Maas in Berlin late Monday at an event hosted by the German newspaper Bild.

Chinese foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying said Maas’ “political show” with Wong displayed disrespect to China’s sovereignty and was an interference in its internal affairs. She urged Germany to avoid sending the wrong signal to “radical, separatist forces in Hong Kong” and said any efforts to solicit foreign support to split the country are “doomed to fail.”

In an immediate response, Wong tweeted that Chinese ‘s strong reaction was “baffling.” Wong, a leader of Hong Kong’s 2014 pro-democracy protest movement, was charged last month with inciting people to join a protest in June. His prosecution came after his release from prison in June following a two-month sentence related to the 2014 protests.

Associated Press videojournalist Harvey Kong in Hong Kong and news assistant Liu Zheng in Beijing contributed to this report.

New faces to watch in the pool on the road to Tokyo Olympics

July 28, 2019

GWANGJU, South Korea (AP) — An American named Michael. Teenage girls from three different countries. A Hungarian who took down Michael Phelps’ favorite world record. New faces emerged in the pool at the world championships a year out from the Tokyo Olympics. They all have potential to make the podium in what would be the first games for each of them.

Here’s a look at the talent pool:

MICHAEL ANDREW, United States

He has been generating attention since turning pro at 14 and skipping college swimming. Andrew is coached by his father using a method that emphasizes swimming at low volume all at race pace. The 20-year-old from Kansas reached his first worlds final in Gwangju and barely missed a medal in the 50 butterfly, finishing fourth with a personal-best time. Andrew has a win over Caeleb Dressel (50 fly, 2018 U.S. national championships) and remains poised to become a breakout star.

MAGGIE MACNEIL, Canada

She stunned four-time world and Olympic champion Sarah Sjostrom of Sweden to win the 100 butterfly in the biggest international meet of her career. The 19-year-old who swims at Michigan helped Canada to bronzes in the 4×100 free relay and 4×100 medley relay. She was a key part of the Canadian women’s team earning eight medals.

KRISTOF MILAK, Hungary

He turned heads by breaking Michael Phelps’ 10-year-old world record in the 200 butterfly with a time of 1:50.37. That bettered Phelps’ mark by 0.78 seconds in the American’s favorite event and was more than three seconds faster than the other medalists. Milak was already the European champion and junior world record holder in the event, but the 19-year-old’s fame shot through the roof after erasing Phelps’ mark. No longer is Katinka Hosszu the most famous Hungarian swimmer. How Milak copes with the increased attention and his ability to follow up with a medal in Tokyo will prove whether he has staying power or is a one-hit wonder.

REGAN SMITH, United States

The 17-year-old from Minnesota introduced herself to the world in the 200 backstroke, lowering the world record in the semifinals before nearly doing it again in the final. Smith won gold in 2:03.35, beating her nearest rival by a whopping 2.57 seconds. Her 100 back split of 57.57 seconds in the 4×100 medley relay set a world record, too. She qualified for only one individual event in Gwangju but figures to add several more in the Olympics, including the 100 back.

ARIARNE TITMUS, Australia

Nicknamed “The Terminator,” the 18-year-old from Tasmania upset Katie Ledecky to win the 400 freestyle, finishing a full second ahead of the American star. Turns out Ledecky was ailing throughout the world meet, but Titmus’ presence makes things interesting for Ledecky, who has trounced the competition since the 2012 Olympics. Titmus earned silver in the 200 free, bronze in the 800 free and gold in the 4×200 free relay at worlds.

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