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French president pushes Paris Olympic bid, vets ministers

May 16, 2017

PARIS (AP) — French President Emmanuel Macron is building a new government he hopes will have more gender balance, fewer positions and be less subject to scandal as it carries out his plans to overhaul the country’s labor laws and politics.

The government will be formally presented on Wednesday. Macron’s office delayed the announcement, initially expected Tuesday, while authorities check the tax records and backgrounds of ministerial candidates for potential conflicts of interest.

Macron won the May 7 presidential runoff in part on promises to clean up the corruption and stagnation ascribed to traditional parties. He said he would require his ministers to sign a commitment to “integrity and morality.”

The 5-year term of his immediate predecessor, Socialist President Francois Hollande, was tarnished early on by financial scandals. The new government is expected to have an equal number of women and men and a smaller number of Cabinet posts than under Hollande.

It’s a delicate balancing act, as the centrist Macron tries to redesign French politics by borrowing ministers from left and right, and combining new talent with experienced heavyweights who can help him make his mark on Europe and world affairs.

The president named low-profile, center-right Edouard Philippe as prime minister on Monday. Others whose names are circulating are television personality and environmental activist Nicolas Hulot; Axelle Tessandier, who created a startup in San Francisco before joining Macron’s campaign; center-right European lawmaker Sylvie Goulard; and prominent centrist party leader Francois Bayrou.

Outgoing Defense Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian, a Socialist, may end up remaining in his post to ensure continuity in French military operations against Islamic extremists in Syria, Iraq and Africa. The biggest scandal to taint Hollande’s administration concerned then-budget minister Jerome Cahuzac. After months of public denials and lies, Cahuzac acknowledged in 2013 holding illegal foreign bank accounts for two decades.

Cahuzac’s case prompted the appointment of a new national financial prosecutor to focus on complex cases of serious economic and financial crime and the enactment of a law requiring ministers and lawmakers to declare their financial assets.

In his second full day in office, Macron also hosted a delegation from the International Olympic Committee in the Elysee Palace, a symbolically important gesture of support for the French capital’s bid in its heated race against Los Angeles for the 2024 Games.

Macron pushed the Paris Olympic bid with a visiting IOC delegation. Macron said he would go to Lausanne, Switzerland, for a key IOC meeting in July and he may go to Lima, Peru, in September, where the committee makes its final decision.

“This discussion left no doubt about the fact that the Paris bid is enjoying extremely strong support from all public authorities,” Patrick Baumann, head of the IOC evaluation commission told reporters after the meeting.

Winning the games would be a big boost for France after years of fading global influence — and a boost for Macron as the untested 39-year-old president embarks on an effort to reinvigorate the French economy amid skepticism.

Meanwhile, criticism from Socialists and conservative Republicans met Macron’s nomination of Philippe as prime minister. The traditional parties fear being sidelined by Macron’s growing centrist party, Republic on the Move, in crucial parliamentary elections next month.

Macron “wants to create a majority by exploding the right as he exploded the left,” senior Republicans lawmaker Bernard Accoyer told France-2 TV station Tuesday. The new government may only serve for a few weeks. If Macron’s party doesn’t win a majority in the June 11 and 18 elections, he might have to form a coalition and adjust the makeup of the government. He also could end up with a government led by an opposition party.

Samuel Petrequin in Paris contributed to this report.

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With Macron on board, Paris 2024 bid is ‘ready right now’

May 14, 2017

PARIS (AP) — Paris bid leaders want to capitalize on the sense of optimism surrounding new President Emmanuel Macron to beat Los Angeles and secure the Olympic Games in 2024 , not 2028. With the IOC currently assessing a proposal to award the next two Olympics — one to each city — Paris officials insist the French capital city is the right choice for 2024.

The 39-year-old Macron, France’s youngest-ever president, officially took office on Sunday as the IOC evaluation commission started a three-day visit to Paris. “Our team has a new member, the new President of France, Emmanuel Macron,” bid leader Tony Estanguet said on Sunday. “He’s been a fantastic supporter of our bid from the beginning. He will be with us all the way to Lima and hopefully beyond.”

Los Angeles and Paris are the only two bidders left for the 2024 Games, which will be awarded in September at a meeting of Olympic leaders in Peru. The race began with five cities, but Rome, Hamburg, Germany, and Budapest, Hungary, all pulled out.

The IOC has four vice presidents looking into the prospect of awarding the 2024 and 2028 Games at the same time in September. “We have one goal during these few days: to convince you that Paris is the right city, with the right vision, at the right moment,” Paris mayor Anne Hidalgo said. “The right city with world-class venues and accommodation, and the best public transport in the world, ready right now.”

International Olympic Committee members were in Los Angeles earlier this week to meet with the U.S. bid leaders and inspect their planned venues. While Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti appeared at least willing to consider hosting the 2028 Olympics if the city isn’t awarded its first choice of 2024, Hidalgo said Paris is set for the earlier edition.

“With financial and political stability and support, we are ready right now,” Hidalgo said. “At the right moment, as the no risk option.” The French government has pledged one billion euros ($1.1 billion) of support for the Paris bid and Macron is expected to confirm that amount. If Paris is awarded the 2024 Games, the infrastructure budget is expected to total 3 billion euros, with operational costs of 3.2 billion euros.

Paris also plans to underline the compactness of its plans to make the difference. According to the bid dossier, 84 percent of the athletes will be able to reach their competition venues in less than 25 minutes, and more than 70 percent of the proposed venues are existing facilities, with a further 25 percent relying on temporary structures.

Paris, which last staged the Olympics in 1924, failed in bids for the 1992, 2008, and 2012 Games. With the pro-business and pro-EU Macron, Paris bid leaders have a strong supporter. The new president has already thrown his weight behind Paris’ bid, telling IOC President Thomas Bach over the phone of its “expected benefits for all French people.”

Macron won’t attend Sunday’s night gala dinner with IOC members in Paris but is expected to meet with the evaluation commission on Tuesday before they leave. IOC members started their visit with discussions on Paris’ proposals that will be followed by venue visits on Monday and further meetings on the final day.

Voters reject 2026 Olympic bid for St. Moritz, Davos

February 12, 2017

ST. MORITZ, Switzerland (AP) — Voters in the Swiss Alps have rejected a second Olympic hosting bid planned for upscale mountain resorts St. Moritz and Davos. The canton (state) of Graubuenden says a referendum on financing a candidacy for the 2026 Winter Games was rejected by 60.1 percent of voters.

In a tighter vote in 2013, the region refused to support a 2022 Winter Games bid. That Swiss project was the likely favorite in a contest won by Beijing. Switzerland now has a second option centered on the town of Sion, which could involve the IOC’s home city, Lausanne.

The Swiss Olympic board meets next month to decide on formally bidding in the 2026 contest. The IOC chooses a host in 2019. Sunday’s ballot was conducted as St. Moritz hosts the two-week ski world championships.

Rome’s city council votes down 2024 Olympic bid

September 29, 2016

ROME (AP) — As far as city leaders are concerned, Rome’s bid for the 2024 Olympics is finished. The city council voted in favor of scrapping the bid on Thursday, a week after Mayor Virginia Raggi rejected the candidacy, citing concerns over costs.

“It was irresponsible to say yes to the candidacy,” Raggi wrote on Facebook. “We wanted to say no to more debts for Rome and for Italy.” The anti-bid motion passed easily, as expected, by 30-12 since Raggi’s anti-establishment 5-Star Movement holds a majority on the city council.

The 5-Star Movement holds 29 of the 48 council places, and all 29 voted in support of the mayor’s rejection. There was also one supporting vote from an opposition party. Six council members were absent.

The rejection leaves only Los Angeles, Paris, and Budapest, in the running for the 2024 Games. The International Olympic Committee will decide on the host city in September 2017. However, Rome bid leaders and the Italian Olympic Committee (CONI) are hanging on to hope that the bid can somehow be revived, perhaps if Raggi is ousted from office.

IOC President Thomas Bach will be in Rome next Tuesday for a sports and faith conference at the Vatican. “We’ll decide what to do after meeting Bach on Tuesday,” CONI president Giovanni Malago said. The IOC told Italian media that it was following the events in Rome and was in contact with the bid committee and CONI to “make sense of these political circumstances.”

It’s the second time in four years that a Rome Olympic bid has been rejected. In 2012, then-premier Mario Monti scrapped the city’s bid for the 2020 Olympics because of financial concerns. Under previous mayor Ignazio Marino, Rome’s 2024 bid was approved by the city assembly last year with 38 votes in favor and only six against. Italian Premier Matteo Renzi was a strong supporter of the bid.

“Today came the definitive ‘No’ on the Olympics,” Renzi said. “It’s legitimate but we’ve certainly made a bad impression internationally. “But what’s shocking isn’t the decision but rather it’s saying that you can’t have the Olympics because it’s bad business. Thousands of jobs will be lost for giving up.”

Raggi, a lawyer who was elected in June as Rome’s first female mayor, cited worries over costs and budget overruns as reasons for rejecting the bid in a city that can barely collect its trash, and keep up other basic public services.

At the same session, another motion was passed by the city council asking the government to provide 4 billion euros ($4.5 billion) for refurbishing sports venues in the city and for general urban improvements.

“We’re continuing to work for the city,” Raggi wrote. The latest rejection is another signal that the IOC still has a lot of work to do to convince cities that hosting the games is a boon and not a burden. Earlier Thursday, a city government panel in Tokyo warned that the cost of the 2020 Olympics could exceed $30 billion, more than four times the initial estimates.

Voters in Hamburg rejected the German city’s 2024 bid in a referendum, and Boston dropped out last year amid a lack of public and political support and was replaced as the U.S. candidate by Los Angeles.

Four cities withdrew during the bidding for the 2022 Winter Games, leaving only two candidates in the field. Beijing, hardly known as a winter sports destination, defeated Almaty, Kazakhstan.

Samba, reflections and pride in final Rio Olympics party

August 22, 2016

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Shaking to samba and expressing a sense of longing with uniquely Brazilian words, Olympians and fans said goodbye to the Rio Games with one last big bash that was both revelatory and a sigh of relief.

The closing ceremony Sunday celebrated the 16-day spectacle that was the Rio Games, which combined numerous highlights with ugly and even bizarre episodes that sometimes overshadowed competition. Cariocas — as Rio’s residents are known — weren’t swayed by the issues that led up to these Olympics, and braved rain and strong winds on the final night to cap their moment in the worldwide spotlight.

While South America’s first Olympics are over, safely and with a grandiose finale, many problems remain. Still, Brazil showed Sunday it still definitely knows how to party. “These were marvelous Olympic Games in the ‘marvelous city,'” said International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach, playing off the “cidade maravilhosa” nickname of Brazil’s postcard city of inviting coastlines, year-round sun and lush tropical vegetation.

While the stadium erupted in applause at that declaration, a few minutes later there were boos of sadness when Bach announced: “I declare the Games of the XXXI Olympiad closed.” The closing ceremony in iconic Maracana Stadium was also meant to take care of some business — formally signaling the transition to the 2020 Summer Olympics in Japan.

But Sunday’s party was all about Brazil, designed to be more low-key than the opening, which focused heavily on Rio. The ceremony featured original footage of Alberto Santos Dumont, the man that Brazilians recognize as the inventor of the airplane. The theme, “Brazilians can do with their bare hands,” was a nod to the emerging economy of the world’s fifth most populous nation.

Dressed in colorful feathers, dozens of dancers formed in the shape of the arches of Lapa, a popular area of Rio akin to Roman ruins, then morphed to make the shape of iconic Sugarloaf before quickly changing again, this time to the official 2016 symbol.

Samba legend Martinho da Vila, whose tunes make their way into many popular telenovelas, sang “Carinhoso,” or “Affectionate.” Olympians poured in under light rain, waving their flags while many shook their bodies to samba-infused pop that made the stadium feel like a Carnival parade. Britain’s athletes wore shoes with soles that lit up in changing colors of red, white and blue, while Tongan taekwondo athlete Pita Taufatofua danced onstage in a grass skirt as a DJ performed, reprising a moment that captured attention when he carried the flag for his country during the opening ceremony.

The show widened its lens to greater Brazil, a massive country with a land mass slightly larger than the continental United States. There was a tribute to cave paintings of some of the first inhabitants of the Americas, in Serra da Capivara, in Northeastern Brazil, today one of the nation’s poorest regions.

Spectators watched performers shake it to frevo, a frenetic dance that — if it’s even possible — makes high-octane samba seem like a staid ballroom affair. Holding small umbrellas, dancers jumped and marched while performing acrobatics.

They shook it to “Vassourinhas,” which means “small brooms,” a popular song that was also the name of a famous club in the northeastern city of Recife. The show also built performances around “saudade,” which means anything from longing for someone to sadness to remembering good times. It is one of the most important words in Brazilian Portuguese. Lights flashed translations for the word in many languages, and a group of women sang “Mulher Rendeira,” or “Lace-making Woman,” a nod to the country’s African heritage. Brazil was the last country in the Americas to outlaw slavery, in 1888.

The games had many memorable moments, both for Brazilian competitors at home and athletes from around the world. Soccer-crazed Brazil got partial payback against Germany, winning gold two years after a 7-1 World Cup semi-final shellacking that left Brazilians fuming. American gymnast Simone Biles asserted her dominance with four golds, swimmer Michael Phelps added five more to up his staggering total to 23 and the world’s fastest man, Usain Bolt, put on his usual show with three golds just days before turning 30 years old.

But there were also ugly episodes, like American swimmer Ryan Lochte’s fabricated story about a harrowing robbery that was actually an intoxicated-fueled vandalism of a gas station bathroom, and bizarre issues like Olympic diving pools going from crystal blue to gunky, algae green — at a time when Rio’s water quality in open waters is one of the biggest local environmental issues.

With the games over, Brazilians now return to problems that have long consumed the country of 200 million people. The economy is mired in its worst recession in decades, and later this week the Senate is expected to begin the trial on whether to permanently remove suspended President Dilma Rousseff, who was impeached in May for breaking fiscal rules in her managing of the federal budget.

There’s widespread expectation that the games in Tokyo, one of the world’s richest, most recognizable, cosmopolitan cities, will run more smoothly than they have in Rio. But there’s also worry in Japan over whether the Olympics will eventually further drag down an economy that has been struggling for decades.

The governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, accepted the flag from International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach and Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes, signaling the transition. Many people, from Brazilians to IOC members, will analyze how things went for the Rio Games in the months ahead. But on Sunday, one strong sentiment was relief — that despite some problems, overall the games went well.

That wasn’t a given going in. The Zika virus scared away some competitors and tourists, rampant street crime in Rio and recent extremist attacks around the world raised fears about safety and Brazil’s political crisis, and the economic angst behind it, threatened to cast a pall over the competitions.

“We are very resilient, we didn’t leave anything important unaddressed,” said Augusta Porto, 36, a translator and Rio resident. “We can welcome people despite the serious problems that we have faced in the recent past.”

After Rio risk, Olympic officials can learn lessons

August 21, 2016

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Taking the Olympics to Rio de Janeiro was always considered a bit of a risk. Now that South America’s first games are drawing to a close, the question is: Did the gamble pay off?

The answer, according to experienced Olympic officials and experts, is a mixed bag. Yes, Brazil managed to pull it off under difficult economic and political conditions, with the sports competitions, venues, athletes, friendly hosts, television images and Rio’s scenic backdrops all rising to the occasion.

Yet, behind the scenes, these were also troubled Olympics that fell short in other areas — empty seats, ticket fiascos, organizational mishaps, spread-out venues, green water, street crime, traffic chaos and lack of a clear Olympic feel in the parks.

The Olympics on TV are never the same as the Olympics on site. That’s been the case more than ever this time, reminiscent of the 1996 Games in Atlanta, where great sporting moments contrasted with lost buses, failures in the technology system and other off-the-field problems.

“This has been probably a little below the expectations of the experts, but will have televised well for the 99.9 percent of the population of the world that experiences the Olympics,” senior Canadian IOC member Dick Pound said.

International Olympic Committee vice president John Coates of Australia acknowledged the games have not run as smoothly as desired. “It’s been difficult,” he said. “To be fair, some of that was because of the economic and political background on which the games are being held.”

For Olympic historian David Wallechinsky, attending his 17th games, the shortage of volunteers, lack of Olympic signage and other logistical glitches have outweighed the well-run competitions and welcoming Brazilian people.

“I think these games will be seen in the continuum of Atlanta, Athens, Rio — the ones that didn’t work out,” he said. “One just hopes the lessons are learned.” But the games must also be judged from a local perspective. Many Brazilians and Rio residents — known as Cariocas — will feel pride over how they’ve put on the world’s biggest sports event and will cherish their moments on the global stage.

And, for the host country, the games are ending on a delirious high— with a gold medal in men’s soccer. Brazilian fans wanted more than anything to finally win the top Olympic prize that has eluded them in their national sport.

Rio Mayor Eduardo Paes said the Olympics have been a catalyst for building new public transport lines and renovating the port area, insisting that no white elephants will be left behind. Comparing Rio to the richer cities that lost out for the 2016 Games would be misguided, he said.

“We come from a tropical experience, the Latin ways of Brazil, which sometimes made the IOC members a little bit crazy,” Paes said. “If you want to be fair to Rio, you cannot compare us to Tokyo, to Chicago, to Madrid. These are cities that have much better infrastructure. They come from developed countries. You have to compare Rio to Rio.”

When Rio was chosen as host city seven years ago, IOC members were convinced the time had come to take the games to South America. Brazil was a rising economic force at the time. But local organizers quickly fell behind in preparations and were forced into an Athens-like mad dash to catch up.

Then, over the last two years, the economy plummeted into its worst recession in 80 years, the country was engulfed by a massive corruption scandal centering on the state-run oil company Petrobras, and the president was suspended and sent for impeachment.

“It’s also a games in the middle of reality, not organized in a bubble,” IOC President Thomas Bach said Saturday. “They were games in a city where there are social problems and social divisions. … The IOC has shown that it is possible to organize games also in countries which are not at the top of the GDP rankings.”

The athletes produced the goods — Bolt with three more gold medals to take his career tally to nine, Michael Phelps with five more golds for a total of 23, and gymnast Simone Biles with four golds. But the games also were marred by the bad behavior — and concocted stories — of Ryan Lochte and his U.S. swimming teammates.

For all the drumbeat of bad news in the months ahead of the Olympics, two of the biggest issues caused barely a ripple. The Zika virus, which had led some scientists to call for the games to be postponed or moved, was hardly mentioned. Worries over Rio’s sewage-filled waters did not hamper the competitions, with only a handful of athletes falling ill.

Elsewhere, there were embarrassing setbacks, mostly during the first week: the green water that marred the diving and water polo events; the windows of a media bus shattered in an attack; foreign team officials and government ministers mugged in the street; volunteers who never showed up or just quit.

“It’s just not acceptable with seven years in advance not to signs ready, not to have volunteers who know anything, as friendly as they may be,” Wallechinsky said. Arguably the most damaging drawback was the lingering issue of empty seats. Some venues, such as tennis, basketball, swimming and gymnastics, drew good crowds and produced a lively atmosphere. But others suffered from lesser turnouts and lack of buzz. The track and field stadium was a quarter- or half-full for some sessions; the stands were not even completely packed for Usain Bolt’s gold medal races.

The long distances and travel times between the three main venue clusters meant there was no single area where large, colorful crowds could congregate and produce a Carnival atmosphere. For the future, Olympic officials believe greater oversight and concrete benchmarks are needed to make sure organizers are on time and delivering as promised. Pound said the IOC and international federations should carry out a “forensic analysis” after Rio on what worked, what didn’t and why.

“Going forward, the IOC has to learn from the experience in Rio if it wants to take the games to places other than settled, affluent cosmopolitan cities,” IOC vice president Craig Reedie said. “We should train the city well in advance. We have to work out how better to prepare them and help them.”

Renowned chef feeds Rio’s homeless with excess Olympic food

August 16, 2016

RIO DE JANEIRO (AP) — Twelve hours ago, Fagner Dos Santos ate his last meal: two hardened bread buns and coffee. For much of the past decade, the 33-year-old has been battling drug addiction while living on the streets of Rio. When he eats at all, it’s usually at a grungy soup kitchen or after picking through the trash.

Now he and some 70 other homeless men are feasting on a three-course meal courtesy of one of the world’s top chefs. On the menu: Ossobuco with buttery baroa potatoes topped off with a gelato dessert. “Who would’ve thought food made for the cream of society would be served to a group of homeless men?” dos Santos said, gazing at the open, art-filled dining room and waiters in prim orange aprons that for a short while transported him away from his tough life.

The gastronomic destination is the brainchild of Italian master chef Massimo Bottura. Using leftover ingredients from Olympic caterers and other local partners, Bottura created a gourmet soup kitchen, RefettoRio Gastromotiva , that for a week now has been serving up meals to Rio’s homeless population. The name is a play on the Latin word reficere, meaning “to restore,” and a nod to the communal dining rooms known as refectories that are a mainstay of monasteries.

With questions swirling over the $12 billion price tag of South America’s first Olympics, Bottura wanted to make a statement about the games’ sustainability by taking on one symbol of Olympic waste: the more than 230 tons of food supplied daily to prepare 60,000 meals for athletes, coach and staff.

“This is a cultural project, not a charity,” said Bottura, who runs the Michelin three-star Osteria Francescana in Modena. “We want to rebuild the dignity of the people.” Bottura said he was inspired by Pope Francis’ advocacy for the poor and modeled his project on a similar one he organized last year in an abandoned theater during the Milan world’s fair. His aim is to educate people about food waste in order to help feed the 800 million in the world who are hungry.

It’s a message that resonates in Rio. Over the past year, as Brazil plunged into its deepest recession in decades, the city’s homeless population has struggled. In June, facing a financial calamity, Rio’s state government had to close or cutback service at 16 meal centers. The splurge on the Olympics has only heightened a sense of abandonment among the homeless, with many reporting being repeatedly removed by police from the city’s recently cleaned-up Lapa district, where Bottura’s restaurant is located.

In contrast to the government-run centers, where meals are served on prison-like food trays with throw-away cups, the Refettorio is an epicurean’s delight, complete with designer wood tables, oversized photos of the staff by French artist JR and a long mural of the Last Supper dripping in chocolate by Vik Muniz, one of Brazil’s top-selling artists.

At night the space, built of corrugated plastic on a run-down lot donated by the city, looks like a lit-up box. For the Olympics launch, Bottura assembled a tour de force of local and international celebrity chefs. Once the games are over, the project will morph into a lunchtime restaurant, proceeds of which will fund evening meals for the homeless.

Beneficiaries are selected by groups like one that runs a shelter for transvestites who work as prostitutes on Lapa’s libertine streets. Working the kitchen are graduates of local partner Gastromotiva, a nonprofit cooking school that has turned hundreds of Brazilians from the country’s neglected favelas into cooks.

For many of the diners at RefettoRio, the food is unlike anything they’ve tasted before. But it’s the royal treatment they relish most. “Just sitting here, treated with respect on an equal footing, makes me think I have a chance,” said Valdimir Faria, an educated man who found himself alone on Rio’s streets, in a downward alcoholic spiral, after his marriage and life in a city hours away fell apart.

As dinner service got underway Sunday, a disheveled man identifying himself only as Nilson removed a few radish slices from his eggplant panzanella salad and deposited them in a plastic bucket holding a squeegee kit.

“I thought it was paper,” he laughed, while trading a boisterous “grazie, grazie” with Bottura. Sunday’s meal was prepared by chef Rafael Costa e Silva, who normally dishes up fixed-price meals for $150 a head at his swank Lasai bistro in Rio. While he makes a living catering to the rich, he said he’ll never forget the experience of serving the poor.

As dinner wound down, Costa e Silva emerged from the kitchen to thank his guests. It was Father’s Day in Brazil, and so for many of the men gathered who talked about life’s wrong turns and their estrangement from family, emotions ran high.

“What you’ve enjoyed is a simple meal but one made with lots of love and care,” Costa e Silva said before the dining hall broke into applause. He wiped a tear from his cheek and continued. “We wanted you to feel spoiled — for at least one night.”

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