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Swedish bid hopes Latvia link key to 2026 Olympics host vote

June 23, 2019

LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) — The head of Sweden’s 2026 Winter Olympics bid believes having Latvia on the hosting ticket can sway Monday’s vote for the perceived underdog against Milan-Cortina. The Stockholm-Are plan to stage ice sliding sports across the Baltic Sea at a venue in Latvia avoids building a white elephant venue in Sweden — a key demand of IOC reforms to cut Olympic hosting costs.

Using the sliding track at Sigulda “adds enormous value” to the two-nation bid, Stockholm-Are chief executive Richard Brisius told The Associated Press on Sunday. “It will be very important for delivering the new transformative games that we want to do,” Brisius said.

The International Olympic Committee wants the 2026 Winter Games to help end skepticism about the cost of bidding and hosting the games, after potential bids in Canada, Switzerland and Austria dropped out due to local opposition.

Brisius argued the Latvian element in Sweden’s bid is the best example of living up to the IOC’s promise to be flexible with candidates aiming to be cost-efficient. “Are the IOC members ready for that? We are offering that,” the Stockholm-Are official said in a challenge to around 85 IOC voters.

“If we can do this, and we show that this is the way to do it, it will open up for more bid cities in the future,” Brisius said. “I would not say we are the underdog — I think we are the future.” One member of Sweden’s delegation who is more than happy with the underdog label is retired high jumper Stefan Holm, who has been an IOC member since 2013.

The 43-year-old Holm, who won Olympic gold in 2004, even drew comparisons with Sweden’s victory over Italy in the qualifying playoff for the 2018 World Cup. “Sweden is always the best when we’re the underdog,” Holm said after a bilateral meeting at the Olympic Museum in Lausanne. “In the team sports we could beat Italy in football and we’re always the underdog against Italy, the same against Canada in ice hockey or whatever.

“So I think we’re in a good place.” Sweden has never hosted the Winter Games. It made numerous bids between 1984 and 2004, while it was also briefly in the race for 2022. “We are a stable country politically speaking, economically speaking,” said Holm, who has been an IOC member since 2013. “We have never held the games before and we really, really want it. We are a sports loving people especially when it comes to winter sport so hopefully it’s our turn this time.”

IOC members are famously discreet about their voting intentions ahead of a hosting vote, and more than one-third of this electorate is voting for the first time. A total of 35 members have joined since the last contested vote in July 2015 when Beijing edged Almaty to get the 2022 Winter Games.

“I meet people who are very keen to find out what is best for the (Olympic) movement,” Brisius said of the newer recruits. Two of those 35 are Italian — bobsled federation president Ivo Ferriani and Italian Olympic committee head Giovanni Malago — and so cannot vote Monday.

Malago is confident that the support for the Italian bid, from the government and the general population, will see it edge out Sweden. That support is a contrast to recent Italian bids — three years ago, Italy was forced to end Rome’s bid for the 2024 Summer Olympics because of staunch opposition from the city’s mayor. And in 2012, then-premier Mario Monti scrapped the city’s candidacy for the 2020 Olympics because of financial concerns.

“We have never received a critic. From any parties,” Malago said of the current bid. “The government and the opposition support this bid. I think it is a unique case not only in Italy but also in the world.”

The IOC president traditionally does not vote, though in an expected close race the winner is likely to be the candidate most favored by Thomas Bach’s office.

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FIFA’s record finances reignites World Cup pay parity debate

March 07, 2019

LONDON (AP) — When world soccer executives receive FIFA’s annual report this year, they will see that $753,000 is funding a women’s league in Colombia, $588,197 is helping female players in New Zealand and girls in Botswana are benefiting from $341,600.

That’s merely a snapshot of the $270.3 million that the body that governs world soccer has invested in projects worldwide between 2016 and 2018. Four years since police raided the hotel and offices of soccer officials and FIFA’s Zurich headquarters in 2015 in a scandal that threatened the organization’s existence, FIFA is awash with cash. People with knowledge of FIFA’s finances told The Associated Press that in the four-year period covering the 2018 World Cup, FIFA’s reserves soared to $2.74 billion and revenue rose to $6.4 billion. The people spoke on condition of anonymity because the financial results remain confidential.

Now, the organization is eager to show that handouts no longer line the pockets of its top managers. Rather, the money is being used to build stadiums, train coaches and provide more playing opportunities. But while the annual report underscores FIFA’s financial vitality, it also highlights the glaring disparity between men and women’s soccer.

Last summer’s World Cup is a good example: France banked $38 million from FIFA for winning the championship, but the women’s champion this July will earn just $4 million. U.S. coach Jill Ellis, who is leading her team’s title defense in France, said she is disappointed with the financial rewards.

“You want to make sure there is a fair apportionment of winnings going out,” Ellis said. Most upsetting to critics is the fact that the financial gulf appears to be growing. FIFA has doubled the overall prize money fund to $30 million since the last Women’s World Cup in Canada in 2015. But that total amount is less than the $40 million increase that men’s World Cup prize money will get in 2022 — for a total of $440 million in prize money.

“The difference between the men’s and women’s prize money is ridiculous,” said Tatjana Haenni, who stepped down as FIFA head of women’s soccer in 2017. “It’s really disappointing the gap between the men’s and women’s World Cups got bigger. It sends the wrong message.”

The world players’ union said the disparity is a reflection of FIFA’s priorities as well as of the status of women’s soccer . “In most countries, the pace of change has not been fast enough nor the changes progressive enough to make up for decades of neglect of the women’s game,” FIFPRO said in a statement to the AP. “Even today women’s football remains an afterthought for many of football’s male administrators and the game lags embarrassingly behind other more progressive sports and industries.

“Most troubling of all is that the gender gap in football is even widening in some areas, including the share of FIFA World Cup prize money.” FIFA President Gianni Infantino has said critics are “perfectly justified” and have a “fair point.”

“We need to try to find what is the most balanced way and I think we made a step and there will be many more steps going ahead,” Infantino said in October before his ruling council approved the 2019 Women’s World Cup prize scale. “Maybe one day women’s football will generate more than men’s football.”

Exactly how much money women’s soccer generates is unclear, as much of FIFA’s revenue comes from top sponsors who are signed up for both World Cups. “That’s something never really analyzed,” said Haenni, who spent 19 years at FIFA. “What is the potential value of the Women’s World Cup? Nobody knows the Women’s World Cup commercial value because it’s not sold separately. This is something that should at least be discussed.”

One of FIFA’s main sponsors is listening. Credit card giant Visa said last week that it would support “women’s football with a marketing investment equal to our support of the men’s FIFA World Cup in Russia.” It did not disclose any figures.

Visa is one of the sponsors that stuck with FIFA through its corruption scandal, calling for the departure in 2015 of Sepp Blatter, FIFA’s then-president who was eventually banned for financial misconduct.

After being elected as Blatter’s successor in 2016, Infantino said “FIFA was clinically dead as an organization.” Now, the Swiss-Italian has the budget is in a healthy state, and is due to be re-elected unopposed in June to a four-year term.

The 2015-18 finances exceed the forecasts that were presented to the FIFA Congress in June. While FIFA projected cash reserves to increase to $1.653 billion in the 2018 World Cup cycle, they had grown to $2.74 billion at the end of 2018, according to the people with knowledge of the finances.

Following the corruption scandal of 2015, FIFA had modestly aimed to raise $5 billion by the end of last summer’s World Cup in Russia — a projection later increased to $6.1 billion. Those expectations were eclipsed when the four-year cycle ended with revenues of $6.4 billion, according to the people with knowledge of the financial report, which shows a profit of around $1 billion.

Haenni noted the challenge lies in ensuring that FIFA’s riches don’t all go to men’s soccer. “Some federations won’t have proper structures for the women’s teams,” Haenni said. “You want to know where the money is going and linked to creating a more balanced environment for women’s teams.”

IOC revokes shooting event status over Pakistan visa refusal

February 22, 2019

LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) — The International Olympic Committee has revoked the Olympic qualification status of a 25-meter shooting event in New Delhi because Indian officials refused to grant entry visas to two Pakistani athletes and an official.

The IOC said Thursday it was informed on Monday that the Indian government authorities did not grant entry visas to the Pakistani delegation for the 25-meter rapid-fire pistol event at the ISSF World Cup, where two places at next year’s Tokyo Olympics were meant to be at stake.

The IOC said it only withdrew the Olympic qualification status from the competition in which the two Pakistani athletes were supposed to participate. There are 500 athletes from 61 countries who are already in India for other World Cup events.

“Since becoming aware of the issue, and in spite of intense last-minute joint efforts by the IOC, the ISSF (International Shooting Sport Federation) and the Indian NOC (National Olympic Committee), and discussions with the Indian government authorities, no solution has been found to allow the Pakistani delegation to enter India in time to compete,” the IOC said in a statement.

It did not say whether Pakistani athletes were entered in any other events at the competition. In a statement to the Press Trust of India news agency, Rajeev Mehta, the secretary general of the Indian Olympic Association, said Friday the IOA would approach the government again about the visas.

“It is a dangerous situation for all sport in the county,” Mehta was quoted as saying. “In addition to not being able to host events in India, there may be problems for our athletes to take part in international events.”

The IOC said the situation goes against the fundamental principles of the Olympic Charter to not discriminate against any athlete. The visa refusal comes amid escalated tensions between the two countries following last week’s deadly suicide bombing in Kashmir against Indian paramilitary troops. At least 40 Indian soldiers were killed in Thursday’s attack, which New Delhi blamed on Islamabad.

Since independence from Britain in 1947, Pakistan and India have fought two of their three wars over Kashmir, which is divided between the two but claimed by each in its entirety.

Koreas win UNESCO recognition of traditional wrestling

November 26, 2018

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Divided for seven decades, North and South Korea together won their first international recognition of Korean traditional wrestling on Monday. The Koreas had earlier pushed separate bids for the sport’s UNESCO recognition before merging their applications amid an easing of tensions this year. Local media reports said South Korea had first proposed the joint bid after a leaders’ summit at a Korean border village in April.

On Monday, the Intergovernmental Committee for the Safeguarding of the Intangible Cultural Heritage, meeting in Port Louis, decided to inscribe traditional Korean wrestling on its list of “Intangible Cultural Heritage of Humanity” on the basis of an application by the two Koreas, UNESCO said in a release.

“The joint inscription marks a highly symbolic step on the road to inter-Korean reconciliation,” UNESCO director-general Audrey Azoulay said. “It reminds us of the peace-building power of cultural heritage, as a bridge between peoples. This marks a victory for the longstanding and profound ties between both sides of the inter-Korean border.”

South Korean President Moon Jae-in hailed the UNESCO inscription, calling it a “result of recent South-North cooperation.” The South’s Cultural Heritage Administration said that the two Koreas have been given a new opportunity to further promote exchanges in the field of cultural heritage. It said in a statement the joint nomination is the “fruitful outcome of a meeting” between Moon and Azoulay in October.

UNESCO said during that meeting with Moon, Azoulay proposed a series of concrete projects involving UNESCO that would facilitate inter-Korean reconciliation. It said similar discussions also took place with North Korea in recent weeks.

“The commitment of UNESCO to facilitate peace between the two parties has led to the joint inscription in a short timeframe,” it said. The Koreas saw their ties improved greatly since North Korean leader Kim Jong Un reached out to Moon and U.S. President Donald Trump with a vague nuclear disarmament commitment early this year.

They have since marched together during the opening ceremony of the Olympics, exchanged pop singer performances and taken steps toward easing a frontline military standoff. But it’s unclear how far their reconciliation moves would go as U.S.-led diplomacy aimed at stripping North Korea of its nuclear program has reported headway since Kim’s summit with Trump in June.

The Koreas were a single country before their separation in 1945. Split along the world’s most heavily fortified border, the countries now have linguistic, cultural and other gaps. They use different English Romanization rules. The wrestling’s English spelling is “ssirum” in North Korea and “ssireum” in South Korea. The Koreas use both spellings for their combined bid for UNESCO recognition.

North Korea has won UNESCO recognitions of two Korean cultural assets — the Korean folk tune “Airrang” and the making of Kimchi. The two are among the 19 items that South Korea has received UNESCO recognition for, according to South Korean officials.

Korean wresting is a national sport and a popular cultural practice in both Koreas. In the sport, participants with a belt around their waists and thighs use their hands, legs and other body parts to bring down their opponents. In South Korea, it gained wide popularity in the 1980s, threatening the long-running popularity of baseball and soccer.

IOC’s Bach and Abe make brief visit to Fukushima region

November 24, 2018

FUKUSHIMA, Japan (AP) — IOC President Thomas Bach and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe made a quick trip Saturday to the region northeast of Tokyo that was devastated by a 2011 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed three nuclear reactors.

The Fukushima region will hold baseball and softball games during the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The visit was intended to showcase a region that government officials say is safe, except for a no-go zone around the nuclear plant. Environmental groups have disputed some government claims and have raised safety concerns.

Neither Abe nor Bach took questions after visiting a baseball stadium and meeting with local residents and athletes. Government officials want the Olympics to convince a world audience that the region is safe.

Bach is in Japan for a week of meetings with Tokyo Olympic organizers and national Olympic officials for about 200 countries.

Olympic referendum: Shall it be ‘Taiwan’ or ‘Chinese Taipei’

November 22, 2018

Athletes from Taiwan compete at the Olympics under the name of a make-believe country: Chinese Taipei. They march behind an imaginary national flag and, if they win a gold medal, hear an “alternate national anthem” being played.

Imagine if France or Australia had to use an assumed name at the Olympics, or the United States and Japan were banned from flying their flags. A referendum to challenge this will be held in Taiwan on Saturday. It asks if the self-governing island should compete in international sports events — including the 2020 Tokyo Olympics — as “Taiwan” instead of “Chinese Taipei.”

“We are the sole IOC member banned from using our own country’s name,” said Chi Cheng, a bronze medalist in the 1968 Olympics. “We are the only member who cannot sing our national anthem and fly our national flag. We are the only one. This shows how seriously China is suppressing us.”

No matter what voters want, nothing is likely to change. China’s authoritarian government has viewed Taiwan as a renegade province since the two separated in the 1949 civil war. The International Olympic Committee backs China, which will host the 2022 Winter Olympics after spending $40 billion on the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing.

In a statement to the Associated Press, the IOC said it will not alter a 1981 agreement that Taiwan must compete as Chinese Taipei. Its executive board repeated that stance in meetings on May 2-3. “The agreement remains unchanged and fully applicable,” the IOC said.

That puts the Chinese Taipei Olympic Committee in a bind. If the referendum passes, it could be required by Taiwanese law to go ahead with the name change pending approval from the legislature. But in a statement to AP, it said “we are bound by the Olympic Charter, the agreement we signed with the IOC in 1981, and also by the IOC executive board decision.”

Taiwan’s athletes are caught in the middle. Dozens protested Wednesday, fearing they could lose their chance to participate in the Olympics. Even if Taiwan was booted out, the IOC has frequently let athletes compete under an independent Olympic flag.

Jacqueline Yi-ting Shen, the secretary general of the Chinese Taipei Olympic Committee, declined to comment for this article. But she spoke about Taiwan’s predicament in an interview with the AP at the Asian Games in August.

“This gives us a chance to compete and make our strength known internationally, so we accept the pity that we have to compete under the name of Chinese Taipei,” Shen said. She added: “I’m sure that many people (in Taiwan) feel dismayed. But quite a lot understand that it is the reality in the international sporting realm. If we use our own name, we will lose the chance for our athletes. They will lose the playground, or the showcase they have. The right of our athletes to compete is our utmost concern. And I think most Taiwanese understand that.”

Ma Xiaoguang, a spokesman for China’s Taiwan Affairs Office, told a news conference this month that Taiwan was using the name issue to “politicize” sports. He said the referendum would damage Taiwan’s interests but gave no details of measures Beijing might take.

Earlier, China warned that Taiwan would “swallow its own bitter fruit” over the referendum issue. Taiwan’s ruling party, the independence-leaning Democratic Progressive Party led by President Tsai Ing-wen, has remained largely silent on the name change.

“There are international constraints on her (Tsai),” Dachi Liao, who teaches political science at National Sun Yat-sen University, told the AP. “She cannot speak out loudly on this; maybe doing something subtly, but never speaking out.”

Liao said the referendum is a proxy vote on independence, and China fears it could echo in the ethnic-minority regions of Tibet and Xinjiang. “People who support changing the name, many of these supporters are pro-independence,” Liao said. “The pro-independence people are feeling upset, so they try to find an opportunity to promote this kind of issue even though they know it may not pass.”

China has thwarted Taiwan’s every move to assert its independence, even in the sporting sphere. Earlier this year, Taiwan lost the right to hold the East Asian Youth Games, under reported pressure from China.

Taiwan held the Summer University Games last year with about 7,500 athletes. China skipped the opening ceremony, but competed in the events. Athletes from Argentina unfurled Taiwan’s real flag at the closing ceremony, waving an independence symbol that Taiwan athletes are forbidden from displaying.

The Argentines were reprimanded for breaking Olympic rules, but warmly applauded inside the stadium. China has warned international airlines and hotels not to use the word “Taiwan” on maps or other material.

The referendum needs one-quarter of Taiwan’s 19 million voters to be approved. Liao, the political scientist, doubts it will reach that threshold. If it does, the Chinese Taipei Olympic Committee is likely to ask its membership what to do.

It risks IOC censure if it moves ahead. The IOC is reported to have warned it at least three times not to proceed. If it backs down, it’s thwarting the democratic will of Taiwan voters. “It’s insulting to us because everyone knows we are Taiwan,” George Chang, the former mayor of Tainan and a referendum organizer, told AP. “Chinese Taipei is not an area or a country. What is Chinese Taipei? Nobody knows. So let Taiwan be Taiwan.”

Taiwan participated in the 1972 games as the Republic of China. It boycotted the next several after its United Nations seat was handed to China, returning in 1984 after submitting to the name change and China’s rising clout.

Despite the roadblocks, the island of 24 million remains a regional power and placed seventh in the recent Asian Games, fielding a delegation of 550 and boasting stars like badminton’s No. 1-ranked woman Tai Tzu-ying.

Alexander C. Huang, who teaches political science at Tamkang University in Taiwan, said the island only faces more isolation if it challenges China. “Taiwan does not have much leverage or support our noble cause, to get our name right or to get our flag flying,” he said. “Maybe in the future … the atmosphere would lead us to that eventual goal. But not now.”

Associated Press video journalist Johnson Lai in Taipei, Taiwan, and writer Chris Bodeen in Beijing contributed to this report.

North and South Korea say they plan bid for 2032 Olympics

September 19, 2018

PYONGYANG, North Korea (AP) — North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and South Korean President Moon Jae-in said in a statement Wednesday that the countries planned to jointly bid for the 2032 Summer Olympics.

At a major summit, the two leaders gave no details of which cities might host certain events at the games, or how advanced the plans were. The International Olympic Committee traditionally does not announce host cities until seven years ahead of the games. That would give the Koreas until 2025 to put together a joint bid.

Germany, with a multi-city bid, Brisbane, Australia and Jakarta, Indonesia are among those who have indicated they would bid for the 2032 Games. The India Olympic Committee has also said it could bid for 2032, as has South Africa’s Olympic committee in an attempt to bring the Olympics to Africa for the first time.

A successful bid by the Koreas would mark the second time South Korea hosted or co-hosted the Summer Games, the first being 1988 in Seoul. South Korea also hosted the Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang in February.

Asia features in the next two Olympics — the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo and the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing, which also hosted the summer version in 2008. The joint statement Wednesday also said the Koreas would look to cooperate in major sports events such as the 2020 Games, also without elaborating.

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