Talita Antunes and Larissa Franca
Talita Antunes (L) and Larissa Franca of Brazil in action at Copacabana Beach, September, 2015

They own the top two spots in FIVB’s Provisional Olympic Rankings. Additionally, the next Olympics are being held on their home court, on the sands of Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro.

Clear favorites to win gold, and maybe silver, are the beach volleyball women’s pairs from Brazil.

The female duo of Talita Antunes and Larissa Franca are primed for gold, with a recent win over American competition in Switzerland, April Ross and London silver medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings. At the end of 2015, FIVB players, coaches, and officials voted on who the best players were: Talita Antunes was voted Best Spiker, while Larissa Franca was voted Most Outstanding.

Agatha Bednarczuk and Barbara Seixas
Agatha Bednarczuk and Barbara Seixas of Brazil celebrating at a competition in Prague, 2015.

The second ranked team of Barbara Seixas and Agatha Bednarczuk were voted “Team of the Year” over their compatriots after having gathered the most points in 2015 in the race to FIVB’s World Tour crown.

The Brazilian women will be ranked #1 in two of the four pools at the Rio Olympics. Home sand advantage goes to Brazil.

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Washington Post Video Zika Virus
Click on image to watch video on how an explanation of how the Zika Virus is transmitted.

 

We’re a little less than a month away and the intense fear of the zika-virus has diminished over the past few months. Part of the reason is that mosquitos, which transmit the zika-virus to humans, flourish in hot weather, and Brazil is in its cool season in August.

Still, athletes and National Olympic committees are taking measures where they can. I’ve noted three basic strategies: protection, abstention and just-in-case measures.

  • Protection: The US Olympic Committee will be issuing long-sleeved shirts and long pants to their athletes, as well as a six-months supply of condoms post Olympics as the virus can be transmitted through sexual fluids. The Australian Olympic Committee is providing their athletes with condoms specially treated with an anti-viral coating. The Korean Olympic Committee is not only providing long-sleeved shirts and long pants to their athletes, they are infusing the fabrics with mosquito repellent. To ensure everyone in Rio has mosquito repellent, Rio’s Olympic Organizing Committee just signed up SC Johnson as an official Olympic sponsor, which means that thousands of bottoles of the mosquito repellent OFF! Will be distributed to athletes, staff and volunteers.
  • Abstention: Despite calls by a prominent Canadian doctor to postpone the Rio Olympics, the World Health Organization did not endorse a ban, although they are strongly recommending pregnant women from travelling to zika-infested areas like Brazil, as well as to abstain from sex for at least 8 weeks after returning from zika-infested areas. If they do not experience such symptoms as rash, fever, arthralgia, myalgia or conjunctivitis after 8 weeks, they are likely uninfected. A handful of athletes have withdrawn for the Rio Olympics citing concerns regarding the zika virus, including the top four golfers in the world: #1 Jason Day of Australia, #2 Dustin Johnson of the US, #3 Jordan Spieth of the US, and #4 Rory McIlroy of Ireland, among others.
  • Just-in-Case Sperm Freezing: 2012 London Games long jump gold medalist Greg Rutherford initially expressed the strong possibility of not going to the Rio Games. But now that Rutherford has frozen his sperm, and has ensured the possibility of having children without the risk of zika-infection, he is now re-considering his participation. Spanish NBA star, Pau Gasol, is also considering freezing his sperm in order to have a greater of peace of mind if going to Rio.
Rio Temperatures
Average temperatures in Rio de Janeiro over 12 months

In the end, for the majority of the athletes, many athletes are going because the cool weather means a significant drop in risk. According to the New York Times, three-time gold medalist beach volleyball player Kerri Walsh Jennings already participated in a tournament in Rio in March and her precautions were effective. “I took my essential oils, I’m going to bring my Honest bug repellent, and I escaped all mosquito bites until the very last day. And I came home, and I didn’t get Zika.”

With the Rio Olympics in August in the middle of the Brazilian winter, she feels confident that the zika virus will not be a threat.

What a lot of athletes may also privately admit is that they are not going to let a tiny mosquito deny them a chance at glory after years of grueling training.

Stephen Colbert, like his former boss Jon Stewart and his former colleague, John Oliver, has a wit as sharp as Occam’s razor. It is often a joy to listen to him dissect an issue. In the above video clip, his dissection of the state of the Rio Olympics felt more like a vivisection. Here are a few examples:

I’m pumped for the Rio Games. They are less than two months away…or never…because yesterday Rio’s acting governor warned “the Olympics could be a big failure.”

Many of the venues are still unfinished, possibly because more than ten billion dollars in construction contracts went to just five firms, all of which are currently under investigation for price fixing and kickbacks. This has already led to top executives and politicians being jailed or charged…although the plus side for those executives – the prisons won’t be completed until 2036.

Police on strike in Brazil airport

Experts don’t expect an increase in arrests during the Olympics in part because police patrols may grind to a halt because they can’t afford to buy fuel. Though with any luck the problem will solve itself when the cars are stolen. These budget shortfalls led first responders to stage protests all over Rio yesterday, including one at the airport where police held a sign that read: Welcome to Hell. Police and firefighters don’t get paid, whoever comes to Rio de Janeiro will not be safe.

Hell. It explains why they’re changing the Olympic logo from three people holding hands to two guys mugging the other guy.

Rio 2016 logos_Steve Colbert

Say it ain’t so! I really want to see Bolt racing in the Rio Games. I hope he recovers in time.

Bolt reportedly could still be named to the Olympic team.

via Usain Bolt out of Jamaican Olympic Trials (hamstring), still hopes for Rio — OlympicTalk

Tlatelolco Massacre 1
The violent suppression of anti-government protests only 10 days before the start of the Mexico City Olympic Games.
It was 48 years ago when the Olympic Games were last held in Latin America. And like the upcoming Rio Olympics, political unrest served as an overture to the opera that was the Mexico City Olympics.

The Rio Games commence in only a little more than 2 months from now. President of Brazil, Dilma Rousseff, is in the midst of impeachment proceedings, which has sparked protests both for and against the embattled leader. However, protests against the government appear to be far greater than those supporting the government.

As the New York Times recently put it, “more demonstrators have hit the Brazilians streets than the rest of the world combined.” And the Olympics are the spark:

The Olympics will provide activists of all political stripes with another prime opportunity to voice their grievances, but this time beneath the hot glare of the global media spotlight. The Olympics raise a raft of reasons to dissent: displacement (some 77,000 people and counting), militarization of public space (85,000 security officials will flood Rio, more than double the number in London), flawed spending priorities (billions spent on Olympics while hospitals are shuttered).

So far, thankfully, little violence has come of the protests in Rio de Janeiro. But in the summer of 1968, protests against the Mexico government were considered such a threat that the President decided to end it, or face the humiliation of open government opposition at a time when the international community was expecting a stable, united and enthusiastically positive Mexico. But in actuality, Mexico City was a few sparks away from a conflagration.

President Gustavo Ordaz
Then President of Mexico Gustavo Diaz Ordaz

The first spark was on July 22, when rival student gangs in competing vocational schools got into a rumble that resulted in riots. The government shut down the riots when police invaded one of the vocational schools, assaulting students and teachers alike, somewhat indiscriminately. The attack by the police on the vocational students led to a growing solidarity of a large number of students in Mexico City. This student movement gained momentum as they raised money, distributed leaflets and held demonstrations in protest of Mexico’s President Gustavo Diaz Ordaz.

On August 1, the rector of the National Autonomous University of Mexico (UNAM), Barros Sierra, led a peaceful demonstration of 50,000 students against what were thought of as repressive actions by the government. After weeks of continued protests, the Mexican Army took over the UNAM campus – the second spark. Rector Sierra resigned on September 23, only 19 days before the start of the Mexico City Games.

The third spark came on October 2, 10 days before the world would focus its attention on the release of thousands of doves, representing peace, and the march of over 5,500 athletes from 112 nations coming together with a promise to compete as members of a united humanity. Only fifteen miles from the Olympic Village, around 10,000 university and high school students gathered in the Plaza de las Tres Culturas to listen to anti-government speeches, and to protest. President Ordaz had had enough.

At 5pm that day, the Plaza was encircled by tanks on the ground, and covered in the air by helicopters. When the helicopters sent flares into the sky, undercover troops called the Battalion Olympia, who were identifiable to the Army by the single white glove they wore, swept through the crowd. Shots rang out and people collapsed.

Tlatelolco Massacre 2

Richard Hoffer wrote about what later became known as the Tlatelolco Massacre, in his book, Something in the Air: American Passion and Defiance in the 1968 Mexico City Olympics. Hoffer explained that the CIA’s Mexico City station chief was relaying to Washington DC what his contacts in the Mexico government were telling him – that “the first shots were fired by the students”, and that “this was a premeditated encounter

The Japan’s Women’s Volleyball Team has legendary status, medaling in five straight Olympics from 1964 to 1984, excluding the boycotted 1980 Moscow Games. They fell out of contention over the 1990s and the “oughts”, but regained form taking bronze at the 2012 London Games.

But there the Japanese team was on the evening of May 18, losing significantly in the fifth and final set to Thailand, a nation that has never sent a volleyball team to the Olympics. This was the International Volleyball Federation (FIVB) Women’s Rio 2016 Qualifier, and it was being played in the Tokyo Metropolitan Gymnasium in Tokyo, the site of Japan’s gold-medal winning performance in the Olympic debut of women’s volleyball.

Japan vs thailand volleyball qualifier
Erika Araki (center) spikes the ball during Japan’s 3-2 Olympic qualifying win

Thailand was tasting it, they could see it – victory. They were up 10-5 in the fifth and final set. (Start watching the above video at the 2 hour 54-minute mark.) Japan served, starting an incredible rally. Thailand received a jump serve, it was returned to the setter waiting at the front of the net, who laid up an easy hit for a Thai striker who smashed it across court, right at a Japanese player who sent the ball out of bounds. The Thai players start slapping high fives. But a Japanese had lunged out of bounds to save the ball and send it across the net to the surprised Thais. Another Thai spike. This time, an amazing one-handed save by the Japanese. The announcer is incredulous. “Has it gone? It’s still in! It’s still in! I can’t believe it.” Back and forth it goes as the Thais re-group. And they have a chance, but their spike sails out. There’s a challenge, but no Japanese fingers touch the ball, and Japan climbs one point closer, 10-6.

They call it momentum. And one could sense it slipping Japan’s way.

Thailand managed to win the next two points to go up 12-6. A poor serve from Thailand made it 12-7. The announcer said, “Can Japan get some Harry Potter magic here and get a few points.” And that’s when it all started to fall apart for the Southeast Asian nation. If they win the set and the match, there’s a very real chance they would eventually qualify for their first Olympics in Rio. But they were on Japan’s home court and they were feeling the pressure.

Japan gets another point to claw closer to 12-8. It’s unclear why watching the broadcast of the match, but Thai coach, Kiattipong Radchatagriengkai, was upset, and challenged the call. The referee from Mexico, Luis Gerardo Macias, denied the challenge, leaving the Thai coach in a huff. Kiattipong calls a time out. When the time out ends and the Thai players go back onto the court, Macias calls the Thai players over to explain something. Macias raises a red card, and suddenly, the score is 12-9. You can hear Kiattipong say in surprise, “aray wa?”, which is a crude way of saying in Thai, “what the heck happened?”

Macias explaining the first penalty to Thai team captain
Macias explaining the first penalty to the Thai team captain

And that is a good question.

But life quickly goes on. Japan serves, the Thai player lets it go, and the ball falls safely inside the lines for the match’s only ace. It’s now 12-10. “Nerves must be jangling on Thailand’s side,” says the announcer. With the crowd roaring, Japan spikes to another point, and are behind by one, 12-11. Kiattipong calls another timeout. Japan serves, takes Thailand’s attack, and blocks for the tying point. It’s now tied, 12-12. Japan serves, sets up for a spike which the Thai defenders can’t handle. 13-12 Japan. That’s seven points in a row.

You can see Kiattipong prowling the sidelines in disbelief. The camera switches to Macias, who has an expression that essentially says, “I told him to shut up and he won’t shut up.” Suddenly, Macias indicates another penalty, and Japan is amazingly given another point by

open water swimming fort copacabana

In the first four Olympiads, from 1896 to 1904, swimming events were held in open water areas like The Mediterranean, The Seine River or artificial lakes. As mentioned in a previous post, the 1908 Olympics in London were held at the massive White City Stadium that had a pool and diving area built into the infield. For the most part in recent history, swimming events have been held in pools, and recently indoor pools.

At the 2000 Olympics, the triathlon was introduced, which includes a 1,500 meter swim in open water. At the 2008 Beijing Olympics, athletes could compete for the first time in a 10,000 kilometer swim. In Beijing, this 10,000 meter swim took place in a rowing-canoeing park, while the same race took place in The Serpentine, which is a recreational lake in Hyde Park, London.

For the 2016 Rio Olympics, both the triathlon and the 10,000 meter swim competition will commence at Fort Copacabana, which is at the southern edge of Rio de Janeiro. This is truly open water as Fort Copacabana opens up into the South Atlantic Ocean.

There has been a lot of news about the filthy and possibly dangerous conditions in the Guanabara Bay waters, where the sailing events will take place, but Fort Copacabana is about 30 kilometers away from the polluted waters of Guanabara Bay, and there is less anxiety about sickness and safety for he triathlon and 10,000 meter race. This is how the site openwatersswimming.com puts it.

Fort Copacabana to Guanabara Bay

As can be expected in a beach bordering a major metropolitan area, Copacabana Beach is not pristine and there is plenty of urban runoff in the water, especially after a rain. But it still remains one of the world’s most iconic beaches and presents one of the world’s greatest natural amphitheaters for open water swimming competitions. With a twice daily inflow and outflow of water from the Atlantic Ocean, major events like the Rei e Rainha do Mar and Travessia dos Fortes are hugely successful.

To me, what is more amazing about the 10,000 meter open water swim is how close the finishes are. Unlike a 10k run, which is completed in 26 to 28 minutes at high performance levels, a 10k open water swim will take about 1 hour and 50 minutes to 2 hours, which is a little less time than a fast-paced foot marathon of 42 kilometers. While 10,000 meter race finishes are determined by seconds, marathon top finishers are often ten to thirty seconds apart.

Maarten van der Weijden
Maarten van der Weijden, winner of the first Olympic 10,000 meter open water swim competition in 2008.

In the short history of Olympic open water racing, after nearly two hours of grueling swimming, the differences between the top finishing times have been seconds, even fractions of seconds. At the first 10,000 race in Beijing, only two seconds separated the medalists, 1.5 seconds being the difference between gold and silver. At the London Games four years later, only 3.4 seconds separated first from second.

All this after nearly two hours in the water!

Yuliya and Vitaly Stepanov on 60 Minutes
Yuliya and Vitaly Stepanov on 60 Minutes. Click on picture to go to video.

On May 8, CBS aired Armen Keteyian‘s interview of Yuliya and Vitaly Stepanov, Russians who fled to the United States after the world learned that they were the informants to a German documentary on massive state-sponsored doping of athletes in Russia. As a result of that documentary and a subsequent investigation by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), the IAAF banned Russian track and field athletes from competing in international competitions, including the 2016 Rio Olympics.

In this interview, Vitaly explained that he had surreptitiously taped a talk with Grigory Rodchenkov, the man who ran the drug-testing lab in Russia and was now in the United States as well because of what he believed was a threat to his life if he stayed. (Two of his colleagues had died unexpectedly in February according to the New York Times.) Rodchenkov said that not only was the state-sponsored doping widespread throughout the Russian government, not only were Russian athletes competing in the Summer Olympics tainted by doping, but at least four gold medal winners of the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia doped.

Grigory Rodchenkov
Grigory Rodchenkov

On May 12, the New York Times released an article based on an interview with Rodchenkov, who was introduced by the producer of a documentary on Russia doping. According to the Times, Rodchenkov developed a “three-drug cocktail of banned substances that he mixed with liquor” that helped potentially dozens of Russian athletes, and that some of Russia’s biggest names in cross-country skiing and bobsledding at the Sochi Games were given this cocktail.

Rodchenkov also actively covered up the doping by ensuring tainted urine would not be tested. Here’s how the Times explained the operation:

In a dark-of-night operation, Russian antidoping experts and members of the intelligence services surreptitiously replaced urine samples tainted by performance-enhancing drugs with clean urine collected months earlier, somehow breaking into the supposedly tamper-proof bottles that are the standard at international competitions, Dr. Rodchenkov said. For hours each night, they worked in a shadow laboratory lit by a single lamp, passing bottles of urine through a hand-size hole in the wall, to be ready for testing the next day, he said. By the end of the Games, Dr. Rodchenkov estimated, as many as 100 dirty urine samples were expunged.

hole in the wall
The hole in the wall (covered by a removable cap) through which tainted urine samples were passed and replaced by clean samples during the Sochi Games, according to Dr. Rodchenkov. NY Times

The big question hanging over the Rio Olympics is whether the ban on the entire Russian track and field team would be lifted in time for competition at the Games starting on August 5. According to the CEO of the US Anti-Doping Agency, Travis Tygart, in the 60 Minutes piece, this new information from Rodchenkov does not bode well.

Look, it’s a stunning revelation. And if true it’s a devastating blow to the Olympic values. It’s clearly the final nail in the coffin for Russian track and field.

South Korea uniform
New South Korean Team Uniform

The threat of zika-virus bearing mosquitos are such a fear that the South Korean Olympic team has taken unusual measures. Authorities have worked to ensure that the uniforms of South Korean athletes helped to decrease the chances of being bit by a mosquito.

Their uniforms will make sure that legs are covered to the ankles and the arms are covered to the wrists. As you can see in the video and pictures, no shorts or shorts sleeves. Additionally, official wear of the South Korean Olympic squad will be infused by mosquito repellent.

As you can see in this link, other nations are fashioning wear that expose arms and legs. Since bartering among athletes is a huge sub-economy during the Olympics, as athletes trade a national pin, shirt, hat or jacket for those of another nation’s, it wouldn’t surprise me if the South Korean jackets become a hot item if the zika scare climbs another notch.

Australia team uniform
Australia Team Uniform for Rio

Rio Olympic Torch closed and open

The torch for the 1964 Tokyo Games was as plain and utilitarian as can be – black handle and thin silver metal cylinder. Over the years, the torch has taken all shapes and forms, with the Winter Games torches in particular tending to the gaudy. But the Rio torch, which will embark on a 3-month journey through Brazil, is both simple and colorful, thanks to an innovative design.

A picture of me with a replica of the 1964 Summer Games torch.
The Rio torch starts off as a narrow cone, completely white save for the Rio Olympic emblem. As Wired Magazine describes it, “with a satin aluminum finish, it looks almost clinical in its simplicity.”

But, as Wired continues to explain, something happens when you activate the torch and ready it for the flame exchange, or “the kiss” as it is called.

“Then you open it. At the moment of the kiss—the handoff from one torch bearer to another—the runner will turn a knob to ignite the gas valve, which will simultaneously cause the top of the white cone to expand, revealing five ribbons of bright, metallic colors.”

Click on this link to see a GIF showing this transformation.

The ribbons of gray, blue and green represent the ground, sea and mountains of Brazil, capped off by the golden top of the torch, which represents the sun.

The Olympic flame had begun its journey on April 21, born of a spark created by the sun in a parabolic mirror, housed on site at the Temple of Hera in Olympia, Greece. Starting today, May 3, the Rio torch will begin its relay through Brazil, where over 10,000 people will run with the torch for at least 200 meters, taking the flame through some 500 cities and towns across the vast South American nation.