TOKYO — There is a Russian elephant in the room at the Tokyo Olympics.
Technically, Russia is officially banned from competing in international sporting events until next year for running a state-sponsored doping program. And yet there are 334 Russian gymnasts, sprinters and other athletes competing openly in Tokyo.
With them is a small army of coaches, assistants and others who have not been shy about cheering their team on even though the Japanese — before they declared a state of emergency and banned all fans from the stands — explicitly forbade cheering for fear it could spread Covid-19.
In fact, as of Wednesday, the Russian athletes had won 52 medals putting them in third place after China and the United States, according to the latest Olympic medals tally.
That they are able to continue adding to Moscow’s medal haul despite not being an official Russian team is due to an enormous loophole that enables them to compete as members of a made-up entity called ROC, which stands for the Russian Olympic Committee.
And that infuriates critics who say the Russians have got a slap on the wrist from an International Olympic Committee that is too afraid to administer a punishment that fits their crime.
“Back in the days of East Germany, they doped their athletes in every sport except sailing, then known as yachting,” David Wallechinsky, former president of the International Society of Olympic Historians, told NBC News. “The Russians went beyond that: they doped sailors and curlers, of all things.”
“It was so extensive, it was outrageous,” he said. “When the story came out, it was an enormous scandal and I personally felt that they just should have banned Russia from the Olympics for four years – period.”
Instead, the IOC imposed a penalty that was “so weak and wimpy that it was painful.”
“Now you have a situation right here, right now, where the Russians feel, you know, ‘OK, we got away with it. Yeah, some of our athletes went down but we got a bunch more,’” Wallechinsky said. “And frankly, we could do it again and sacrifice more athletes.”
Travis Tygart, chief executive of the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, called the IOC penalties on the Russians “a farce.”
“Unfortunately, we’ve seen this horror film already – where the Russian state-sponsored doping program walks free and Russia wins while the IOC and WADA leaders attempt to pull the wool over the world’s eyes by claiming Russia is ‘banned’,” Tygart said, referring to the World Anti-Doping Agency, in an email to Reuters that was published Saturday. “It is barely a ‘rebrand’ and will do nothing to stop the corruption in Russia and likely will embolden others willing to win by any means.”
NBC News has reached out to ROC spokesman Konstantin Vybornov. So far, there has been no reply.
The IOC responded with a statement that did not address whether the Russians were being allowed to escape serious punishment, and insisted “the fight against doping and the protection of clean athletes are top priorities for the IOC.”
IOC spokesman Mark Adams has already been on the receiving end of questions from reporters about why the ROC athletes are routinely being referred to as “Russians” by Olympic officials (they’re not supposed to be) and whether the IOC will take steps to de-Russify the references to the ROC ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February.
ROC athletes will be competing there because the ban on Russia is until Dec. 16, 2022.
“In certain circumstances, we can say ‘Russia Olympic Committee’,” Adams insisted during a press conference last week.
Russia was officially banned in 2019 from competing in international sporting events for four years after it was caught running a state-sponsored doping program designed to boost its medal haul at international sporting events. The ban was later reduced to two years.
In Moscow, their athletes’ exploits have been front page news for weeks and they’re described as Russian athletes, not ROC athletes.
“Russian boxer Gadzhimagomedov reaches final in the Olympics and guarantees himself a silver,” was the headline for the top story in Kommersant, a leading Moscow daily newspaper Tuesday.
Written like a standard Olympics story, it ended with: “In the team rankings of the Tokyo Olympics, Russia ranks fifth after China, the U.S., Japan and Australia.”
No mention of the ROC.
So how does being banned from the Olympics look? For starters, ROC athletes can’t wave the Russian flag and their national anthem isn’t played during medal ceremonies.
The opening bars of Tchaikovsky’s Piano Concerto No. 1 have been played the dozen times a Russian has won a gold medal at these Games. And the flag they’ve waved is not the Russian flag, but it has an Olympic flame in Russia’s white, blue and red colors, with the Olympic rings beneath them.
The ROC athletes are not allowed to have the word Russia emblazoned on their uniforms, unless it’s accompanied by the words “neutral athlete.”
And that’s about it.
Wallechinsky said there is a reason why Russia is being treated with kid gloves by the IOC.
“The IOC just took the position, I believe, that there are certain countries that are just too important to the Olympic movement to eliminate, Russia being one of them, the United States being one, China being another. My guess, some of the Western European nations would also qualify,” he said.
Tygart insisted he was not painting all the ROC athletes with a broad brush.
“Of course, it is not fair to call into question any individual athlete’s performance, and all are presumed innocent unless and until proven otherwise,” he said.
But the circumstances under which the ROC athletes are competing have raised suspicions among some competitors.
After the U.S. swimmer Ryan Murphy finished second to the ROC swimmer Evgeny Rylov in the 200-meter backstroke Friday, he said, “It’s a huge mental drain on me … that I’m swimming in a race that’s probably not clean.”
“It frustrates me, but I have to swim the field that’s next to me,” he said.
Murphy did not name names and Rylov, who was sitting next to him during the press conference, tried to paper the remark over.
“I have always been for clean competition,” he said. ”From the bottom of my heart, I am for clean sport. I’ve devoted my entire life to this sport. Ryan didn’t accuse me of anything, so I’d rather not comment.”
The ROC, however, was furious and blasted Murphy on its official Twitter account.
“You have to know how to lose,” it said in Russian.
“But not everyone can. And here we go again — the same old song about Russian doping is played by the old music box. Someone is diligently turning the handle. English propaganda is oozing verbal sweat onto the Tokyo Games. Through the mouths of athletes offended by defeats. We will not console you. We’ll forgive those who are weaker. God is their judge. He’s our helper.”
Corky Siemaszko reported from Tokyo, and Patrick Smith from London.
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.”
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.
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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