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Tokyo passes Olympic baton to Paris after imperfect, irrepressible games

TOKYO — Japan took its Olympic bow on Sunday.

Tokyo passed the baton to Paris after staging a Games that was delayed by Covid-19 and dismayed a skeptical public but nonetheless still delivered its share of memorable moments.

The fast-paced and tightly-scripted closing ceremony kicked off at 8 p.m. Tokyo time (7 a.m. ET) and, just like the opening ceremony, was a celebration of sports and Japan. It ended with the word “arigato,” which is Japanese for “thank you,” displayed on a giant screen as the athletes strolled off the field.

And all of it played out at the Tokyo Olympic stadium before an audience of mostly empty seats.

The rest of the world watched it at home, with the event streaming live on and rebroadcast on special coverage later in prime time on NBC.

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In the French capital, crowds gathered to celebrate the handover of the summer games to Paris 2024, dancing and celebrating at the foot of the Eiffel Tower while fighter planes trailing a tricolor of blue, white and red smoke swooped through the sky.

“I declare the games of the 32nd Olympiad closed,” Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, said as the world bid goodbye to a Games like no other.

“See you in Paris.”

French aerial patrols fly over the fan village in front of the Eiffel Tower during the Tokyo Olympics closing ceremony Sunday.Stephane de Sakutin / AFP – Getty Images

The ceremony began with one athlete from each participating country marching in with their flags. Once the athletes were assembled in a circle, the soundtrack quickly segued into a jazzy number during which those participants still remaining in Tokyo streamed out to take part in the ceremony, their faces covered in masks.

The upbeat extravaganza at one point featured The Tokyo Ska Paradise Orchestra knocking out a dance version of Beethoven’s “Ode to Joy” before the beating of the traditional taiko drum signaled the start of the celebration of Japan’s unique and vibrant culture.

It capped two weeks of Olympic action that was watched by millions of people around the world but seen in person by a select few because of a pandemic that will stalk the host country long after the athletes have left.

Performers wave to the crowd during the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games in Tokyo on Sunday.Adek Berry / AFP – Getty Images

It was an Olympics faced with unprecedented logistical challenges and domestic opposition, but also a stage for sporting glory mixed in with geopolitical intrigue, discussions over athletes’ mental health and so much more.

The United States once again led the world with 113 medals as of Sunday morning, including 39 golds, ahead of China and the Russian Olympic Committee on both counts.

In a video message to the team posted on Twitter Saturday, President Joe Biden thanked the U.S. athletes “for showing what we can do together as one America and as one team.”

“Beyond the medals and the results, you reminded us that we are stronger than we thought we were,” Biden said.

Japan made the top five with 58 medals, nearly half of them gold, according to the latest NBC News tally.

Japanese Olympians carry the host nation’s flag at the start of a parade of countries during the closing ceremony Sunday.Francois Nel / Getty Images

Masa Takaya, a spokesman for the Games who had spent much of the Olympics fielding tough questions on the coronavirus and other controversies from skeptical reporters, did not try to hide his satisfaction at Friday’s daily news briefing.

“It’s important that athletes from every country perform their best, but also good to see athletes from the home soil doing well,” he said.

They secured their most cherished medal of the lot early Saturday, shutting out the U.S. to win the baseball-mad country’s first-ever gold in the sport.

Japan mounted the world’s biggest sporting celebration in the face of a plague that has infected more than 200 million people and killed 4.3 million around the world, and — propelled by the delta variant — began spreading through Tokyo at a record rate just as the Games were getting underway.

The Olympics may be at an end, but the Paralympics in Tokyo are still ahead. They kick off Aug. 24 and run through Sept. 5.

History will judge whether these Olympics were a success. But this much is clear:

These were the Games where gymnastics star Simone Biles took home a team silver medal, a bronze for the balance beam, and a golden legacy on and off the mat after she shocked the world by pulling out of some key events to focus on her mental health.

These were the Games when established stars Allyson Felix and Katie Ledecky added to their medal hauls and a constellation of new Olympics stars emerged, like swimmer Caeleb Dressel, surfer Carissa Moore, gymnast Suni Lee and runners Sydney McLaughlin and Molly Seidel.

The U.S. women’s soccer team fell short in their pursuit of another gold medal, but veteran striker Alex Morgan — one of many stars of this golden generation who may have played in their last Olympics — told NBC News they’re proud of their hard-earned hardware.

“We’re really happy that we came away with a bronze medal,” Morgan said.

The U.S. men’s basketball team, led by Kevin Durant, defeated a formidable French squad to bring home a fourth straight Olympic gold and cement America’s status as the world’s pre-eminent basketball power.

Then the U.S. women’s basketball team, led by Brittney Griner, defeated a scrappy Japanese team to secure America’s seventh straight Olympic gold medal in this event.

Americans were also introduced to Olympic heroes from unlikely places, like Alaska teen Lydia Jacoby, who won gold in the women’s 100-meter breaststroke and hails from a state with exactly one Olympic-size swimming pool — which she couldn’t train in for months because of Covid-19.

They cheered on the kids competing in the Olympics, like 15-year-old U.S. swimmer Katie Grimes, and a litany of skateboarding teens, including Japan’s 13-year-old champion Momiji Nishiya. They cheered on age-defying athletes, too, like U.S. women’s basketball player Sue Bird, who is 40, equestrian rider Phillip Dutton, 57, and Uzbekistan’s Oksana Chusovitina, who at age 46 is the oldest Olympic gymnast in history.

These were the Games where a Belarusian sprinter defied her country’s authoritarian leader by criticizing her coaches, escaped the handlers trying to send her home at a Tokyo-area airport, and found sanctuary in Poland.

Other female athletes stood up — or took a knee — for Black Lives Matter and #MeToo, and rebelled against having to compete in revealing outfits.

The Games opened to protests in Tokyo and broad opposition from the Japanese people, who feared an influx of athletes from abroad would worsen the Covid crisis at home, but who were nevertheless welcoming to the thousands of visitors in their midst.

There were Olympic displays of kindness and class — runners Isaiah Jewett of the U.S. and Nigel Amos of Botswana helped each to their feet after they got tangled and fell during the 800-meter semifinals, while high jumpers Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy and Mutaz Barshim of Qatar embraced in delight as they agreed to share a gold medal.

Gianmarco Tamberi of Italy embraces fellow high jump gold medalist Mutaz Barshim of Qatar on Aug. 1.Matthias Schrader / AP

But there was also the Olympic meltdown of Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic smashing his racket in frustration after he failed to medal and blew his chance of becoming the first man to win the Golden Slam — four Grand Slam titles and an Olympic gold medal in the same year.

Algerian judo competitor Fethi Nourine defied the Olympic ideal by withdrawing from competition rather than fight an Israeli. And in what could be an Olympic first, a coach with the German modern pentathlon team was kicked out of the Games for punching a horse that balked at jumping.

Just three weeks ago, the Tokyo Games appeared to be imploding.

Key members of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee were knocked out by scandal. Polls showed a solid majority of Japanese were still opposed to the Olympics. One of its biggest sponsors, Toyota Motor Corp., pulled its Japanese TV ads lest it be forever bound to an event that seemed certain to be tarnished. And then came the steady stream of reports that athletes were testing positive for Covid-19 and testing the assurances of Japan’s leaders that the Games would be “safe and secure.”

The Olympic cauldron is seen during the closing ceremony of the Olympic Games in Tokyo on Sunday.Leon Neal / Getty Images

Olympics historian Jeremy Fuchs told NBC News at the time that “there’s never been an entirely happy Olympics” and that the Games have, at times, been overshadowed by contentious debates about human rights and politics, even excessive spending.

“But this much controversy I think is really unprecedented,” Fuchs said. “I think you’d be hard-pressed to find an example in history where citizens of a host country are this unhappy.”

In an interview with NBC News on the eve of the Tokyo Olympics, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga admitted it was a struggle to sell the event to his people. But he said the Games would go on.

And they did.

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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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