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Myanmar swimmer sacrificed Tokyo Olympics dream after brutal military coup

SYDNEY — Win Htet Oo has dreamed about competing in the Olympics since he was 6 years old.

But when the men’s 50-meter freestyle final takes place in Tokyo late Saturday, the swimmer from Myanmar, 27, will be watching at home.

Despite a recent Olympic qualifying time and a national record, he’s boycotting the Games in protest against the military coup that overthrew his country’s elected government six months ago this weekend.

“It’s been two decades in the making, slowly training, slowly improving, aspiring to be at the level where I could represent my country,” he told NBC News from his home in Australia earlier this week.

But then everything changed in the swimmer’s homeland when the military seized power in February.

“I knew it instantly — I could not represent Myanmar — not as long as the military was in charge,” he said.

Instead, he’s hoping to help keep the world’s attention on the country and put pressure on what he calls the “hypocritical” International Olympic Committee.

From hope to despair

Win Htet Oo was born in Malaysia to parents from Myanmar. After attending college in New York, he moved to Melbourne where he has focused on his swimming.

But it was a visit to Myanmar in 2016 that made him double down on his Olympic dream.

After more than 50 years of brutal military rule, a 2015 general election put Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi and her party in power, seen as a major step in the country’s troubled road to democracy.

“I saw a lot of hope. I saw a lot of energy and bravery, especially in the creative arts … That really inspired me to consider what I was doing as a swimmer, as an athlete,” he recalled.

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The stars looked to be aligning for Tokyo 2020, with Win Htet Oo competing at the 2019 Southeast Asian Games and securing both an Olympic qualifying time and a national record in the 50-meter freestyle event.

Then came the military coup.

“There was disbelief … I felt so hopeful that the transition to democracy was going to succeed, no matter how slow the pace was going,” Win Htet Oo said.

Win Htet Oo now works as a lifeguard at the pool where he trains in Melbourne, Australia.Sandra Sanders / Reuters

To the alarm of human rights groups, the military has violently crushed protests across the country in a bid to consolidate power.

More than 900 people opposing the junta have been killed by security forces, drawing international condemnation and sanctions, including from the United States.

“Six months since the coup, the military junta has arbitrarily detained thousands, killed hundreds of civilians including dozens of children, and now people are left fending a deadly pandemic on their own,” Manny Maung, a Myanmar researcher at Human Rights Watch, said.

“This shows us how utterly unprepared and unfit the military is to govern … The economy has collapsed, the health care system has collapsed and aid is not reaching the most vulnerable people.”

IOC request denied

After the coup, the military also took control of the Myanmar Olympic Committee — another reason why Win Htet Oo said there was no way he could compete in the national team.

He wrote to the International Olympic Committee and asked if he could come to Tokyo as an independent athlete. But the organization turned down his request.

With “no other options,” he withdrew from consideration before the Myanmar team was finalized.

“People need to know that the Myanmar military isn’t just another military that has taken power in some backwater, developing country,” he said.

“People think fascism is long dead after World War II, but no, it exists today in Myanmar and it’s shocking that the world continues to tolerate it.”

“This is a military that stands accused of genocide against the Rohingya and against other ethnic people in Myanmar,” he added, referencing a deadly 2017 crackdown against the Rohingya minority population in the Buddhist-majority country’s Rakhine state, which caused more than 1 million to flee.

In a statement, the IOC said the Myanmar Olympic Committee remained “the officially IOC-recognized National Olympic Committee (NOC).”

“Over the past months, the NOC has repeatedly confirmed its focus on the preparation of its team for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020,” it said. “In accordance with the Olympic Charter, any qualified/eligible athletes should be entered by their respective IOC-recognized NOCs.”

While the Myanmar Olympic Committee sent a team of seven athletes to the last Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, this time around just two are competing.

‘It’s hypocritical’

Win Htet Oo said he was deeply troubled by the IOC’s response to his request and is now calling for reform around how the organization recognizes national Olympic committees.

“They’re sticking to a political neutrality stance, even though I think the Myanmar Olympic Committee is breaching the Olympic Charter.”

“It’s hypocritical,” he said of the Olympics’ avowed aspirations to foster peace and harmony.

But experts say this is nothing new.

“What the IOC is interested in, is the financial bottom line and putting on a good show,” said Dr. Tom Heenan, who teaches sport studies at Melbourne’s Monash University.

“The Olympic Charter has noble words … But it’s all window dressing. The main aim of the Olympics is revenue for the IOC and the Olympic movement,” he said.

(NBCUniversal, NBC News’ parent company, paid $7.5 billion to extend its U.S. Olympics media rights until 2032. NBCUniversal is the International Olympic Committee’s single largest source of income.)

Myanmar has been in chaos since the military coup, with regular protests and fighting between the army and newly formed militias.Ye Aung Thu / AFP via Getty Images file

Heenan said turning a blind eye to human rights abuse is “part of the history of the IOC and the Olympic movement,” with the most egregious example being the 1936 Berlin Olympics.

The IOC has repeatedly said it must be “neutral” and stay out of politics, with its president Thomas Bach insisting earlier this year it is “not a super world government.”

It has increased its focus on human rights in recent years, with rights requirements included in the host city contract for the next Summer Games in Paris in 2024.

But it has also faced criticism over next year’s Winter Games, which will be held in Beijing amid growing international backlash against China’s treatment of its Uyghur minority, Hong Kong and Tibet.

China denies wrongdoing and its foreign ministry has criticized “the politicization of sports” and said any boycott is “doomed to failure.”

Meanwhile, Win Htet Oo is left to watch the final he dreamed of taking part in from another continent, knowing that he could have been there.

“[But] I have hope,” he said. “Let’s think about how sport can be a force for protecting fundamental human rights. This is the next big idea that the IOC and athletes need to really think about.”

“Many athletes around the world want to see sport as a real force for good, not just empty words,” he added. “Let’s use sport as a real vehicle toward a more ethical, humane world.”

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Minnesota wildfire doubles in size, creates its own weather

A wildfire in northeastern Minnesota more than doubled in size Tuesday, growing to more than 19,000 acres, after it produced pyrocumulous clouds that generated lightning and even raindrops, fire officials said.

The Greenwood Fire’s growth, most of which happened Monday afternoon, prompted firefighters to leave McDougal Lake, about 80 miles south-southwest of Duluth, officials said. Authorities fear that structures might have been destroyed or damaged.

“We had crews embedded, and as this fire took off, it was quite an effort to communicate with forces on the ground so they could get out,” said federal fire incident spokesman Clark McCreedy.

The pullout was a success, and no injuries were reported. However, downed trees and necessary cleanup mean crews have been unable to assess damage around the lake, McCreedy said.

In addition to the firefighter pullout, 159 dwellings were evacuated Monday, according to an update from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group. Cabins, homes and recreational sites remain under threat, the group said.

Patrick Prochaska, a Minneapolis resident who built a cabin near McDougal Lake in 2012, told NBC affiliate KARE that he watched via security camera as flames mostly bypassed his property Monday, causing minor damage.

“I was feeling very scared,” he said. “At the same time, I could see that it was not doing anything to the house, and it was kind of reassuring.”

The fire in and north of Superior National Forest has mostly performed according to the weather, fire officials said. On Monday, with dry fuel on the ground and temperatures in the high 80s, it was an expanding inferno punctuated by strobes of lightning.

“The winds were drawn into the fire from all directions,” the incident’s fire behavior analyst, Michael Locke, said in a video update Tuesday. “It created what we call pyrocumulous clouds. And really high in the atmosphere … you’d see a thunderstorm, and in fact they went high enough to produce a few sprinkles of rain and even some lightning.”

Temperatures dipped into the mid-70s Tuesday, and the blaze mellowed. “The real story was cloud cover and cooler temperatures,” McCreedy said.

More of the same, and possibly rain, was in the forecast, giving officials hope that they might be able to close the book on an unusually active and dry fire season in Minnesota.

Experts have said climate change has set the stage for extreme weather, including an increase in the frequency and intensity of wildfires in the Northern Hemisphere.

Firefighters — 426 were assigned to the Greenwood event — have been confronted with “prolonged, severe drought,” making parts of Minnesota look like the fire-prone West this summer, McCreedy said.

The Greenwood Fire, which was detected Aug. 15, is believed to have been sparked by lightning.

So far, firefighters have scored no containment, and areas including McDougal Lake, Sand Lake and the Highway 2 corridor have been under mandatory evacuation orders. The federal Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness was closed Saturday “due to active and increasing fire activity, extreme drought, limited resources,” the National Forest Service said in a notice.

Officials set a goal of Sept. 1 for full containment.

“We’re probably going to get more of that moderating weather for the rest of the week,” McCreedy said. “That opens the door for fire crews to make progress on the ground.”

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Hiker survives grizzly bear attack at Denali National Park

A tourist from Indiana was attacked and injured by a grizzly bear at Denali National Park and Preserve in Alaska on Monday night, park officials said.

The 55-year-old tourist, whose name was not released, was hiking alone in dense fog in the Thoroughfare Pass area when a mother bear and multiple cubs charged him from nearby bushes, the National Park Service said in a statement Tuesday.

He had puncture wounds to a calf, his left ribs and his left shoulder, the agency said.

The victim used bear spray that might have cut the attack short, the park service indicated. He walked 1.5 miles to a visitor’s center where “medical personnel” vacationing at Denali treated him as a park bus driver called 911, it said.

The hiker was taken to a medical center near the park before he was transferred to Fairbanks Memorial Hospital, about 120 miles away, park officials said. He was stabilized at the Fairbanks hospital, they said.

“Due to the apparent defensive nature of this attack, there are no plans to locate the bear involved,” the park service said. “Female bears with cubs are naturally defensive of their young, especially when surprised. There is no indication that this bear is unusually dangerous.”

Grizzly bears are federally protected as a threatened species in the lower 48 states. According to the National Wildlife Federation, fewer than 1,500 grizzlies are left in the lower 48, but they thrive, comparatively, in Alaska, where they have a population of about 31,000.

The backcountry area of the attack is closed for one week as a precaution, the park service said.

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House passes John Lewis voting rights bill, sends measure to Senate for tougher fight

House Democrats on Tuesday passed a sweeping voting rights bill named after Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., the late civil rights icon.

The John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act was approved 219-212. All Republicans voted against the legislation.

The bill is part of congressional Democrats’ broader campaign to strengthen voting laws at the federal level to fight restrictive voting laws passed in Republican-led states, such as Texas and Georgia. However, it faces steep opposition in the Senate, where Democrats hold a wafer-thin majority.

The House returned from its recess this week to take up the bipartisan infrastructure bill and a resolution for Democrats’ $3.5 trillion budget package, which includes funding for much of President Joe Biden’s legislative agenda. The procedural motion used to pass the multitrillion-dollar resolution paved the way for the House to vote on the voting rights bill, which was re-introduced last week by Rep. Terri Sewell, D-Ala.

The legislation would require states with recent histories of discrimination to get federal “preclearance” to change their voting laws, which directly addresses the Supreme Court’s 2013 ruling in Shelby County v. Holder. The ruling gutted the preclearance system in the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which civil rights advocates argue was successful in blocking proposed voting restrictions in states and localities with histories of racial discrimination.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., said in a statement last week that Congress had “not only an ironclad Constitutional mandate, but a moral responsibility” to pass the bill.

Shortly before its passage, Pelosi said on the House floor that the bill would honor Lewis’ legacy.

“We should have the right to vote and shouldn’t be diminished by anyone. It is unpatriotic to undermine the ability of people who have a right to vote, who have access to the polls,” she said. “As John knew, this precious pillar of our democracy is under attack from one of the worst voter suppression campaigns since Jim Crow.”

It isn’t the first time House Democrats have tackled election law. In March, House Democrats passed the For the People Act, a sweeping bill that seeks to change campaign finance, voting and ethics laws.

The bill would expand access to the ballot box by creating automatic voter registration across the country by registering eligible voters whenever they interact with government agencies, restoring the voting rights of the formerly incarcerated, expanding early voting and modernizing the country’s voting systems.

However, Senate Republicans filibustered the voting rights legislation in June, and the vote to advance an amended version of the For the People Act split along party lines 50-50, short of the 60 votes needed. All Democratic-aligned senators voted to begin debate, and Republicans unanimously voted to block the bill.

Passage of the voting measure was the final vote of the week for the House, whose members are leaving Washington and won’t return until Sept. 20.

Haley Talbot contributed.

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