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Elnaz Rekabi, who competed without hijab, returns to cheering crowds in Tehran

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Iranian competitive climber Elnaz Rekabi received a hero’s welcome on her return to Tehran early Wednesday, after competing in South Korea without wearing a mandatory headscarf required of female athletes from the Islamic Republic.

After landing, Rekabi gave a careful, emotionless interview to Iran’s hard-line state television, saying that going without a hijab had been an “unintentional” act on her part. However, hundreds gathered outside Imam Khomeini International Airport — including women not wearing the hijab — and cheered for “Elnaz the Champion,” casting Rekabi as an inspiration for their continued protests.

The future Rekabi faces after returning home remains unclear. Supporters and Farsi-language media outside of Iran have worried about Rekabi’s safety after her return, especially as activists say the demonstrations have seen security forces arrest thousands so far.

Later on Wednesday, the International Olympic Committee said it held a joint meeting with the International Federation of Sport Climbing and Iranian officials. The IOC said it received “clear assurances that Ms. Rekabi will not suffer any consequences and will continue to train and compete.” However, other athletes have faced harassment amid the demonstrations.

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The IOC described Rekabi as being with her family and said she joined a call with officials.

Rekabi offers explanation, describes stress

Rekabi’s appearance without the hijab while competing Sunday came amid protests sparked by the Sept. 16 death in custody of a 22-year-old woman that have entered a fifth week. Mahsa Amini was detained by the country’s morality police over her clothing — and her death has seen women removing their mandatory hijabs in public.

The demonstrations, drawing school-age children, oil workers and others to the street in over 100 cities, represent the most serious challenge to Iran’s theocracy since the mass protests surrounding its disputed 2009 presidential election.

That Rekabi, 33, competed without her hijab in Seoul during the finals of the International Federation of Sport Climbing’s Asia Championship prompted her immediate embrace by those supporting the demonstrations that increasingly include calls for the overthrow of the country’s theocracy.

But sports in Iran, from soccer leagues to Rekabi’s competitive climbing, broadly operate under a series of semi-governmental organizations. Women athletes competing at home or abroad, whether playing volleyball or running track, are expected to keep their hair covered as a sign of piety. Iran, as well as Taliban-controlled Afghanistan, make such head coverings mandatory for women.

Iranian competitive climber Elnaz Rekabi speaks to journalists in Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran on Wednesday in an image taken from video by Iran’s state-run IRNA news agency. (IRNA/The Associated Press)

That made Rekabi’s public appearance on Sunday in the final at the Asia Championship a lightning-rod moment. On landing at Imam Khomeini International Airport early Wednesday, she wore a black baseball cap and a black hoodie covering her hair. A man handed her flowers.

Rekabi, upon landing in Iran, repeated an explanation posted earlier to an Instagram account in her name, saying her not wearing the hijab was “unintentional.” The Iranian government routinely pressures activists at home and abroad, often airing what rights groups describe as coerced confessions on state television — the same cameras she addressed on her arrival back home.

Rekabi said she was in a women-only waiting area prior to her climb.

“Because I was busy putting on my shoes and my gear, it caused me to forget to put on my hijab and then I went to compete,” she said.

She went on: “I came back to Iran with peace of mind although I had a lot of tension and stress. But so far, thank God, nothing has happened.”

 

The mass demonstrations over Mahsa Amini’s death in Iranian police custody could create lasting change, say analysts.

The sport’s federation said it had been in touch with both Rekabi and Iranian officials, but declined to elaborate on the substance of those calls when reached by The Associated Press.

“Our understanding is that she is returning to Iran, and we will continue to monitor the situation as it develops on her arrival,” the International Federation of Sport Climbing, which oversaw the event, said in a statement. “It is important to stress that athletes’ safety is paramount for us and we support any efforts to keep a valued member of our community safe in this situation.”

Joly to chair meeting on Iranian women’s rights

So far, human rights groups estimate that over 200 people have been killed in the protests over Amini’s death and the violent security force crackdown that followed. Iran has not offered a death toll in weeks. Demonstrations have been seen in over 100 cities, according to the group Human Rights Activists in Iran. Thousands are believed to have been arrested.

Protesters holding fistfuls of their own hair after cutting it themselves shout slogans during a rally to support Rekabi outside the Iranian Embassy in Seoul, South Korea, on Wednesday. (Ahn Young-joon/The Associated Press)

Gathering information about the demonstrations remains difficult, however. Internet access has been disrupted for weeks by the Iranian government. Meanwhile, authorities have detained at least 40 journalists, according to the Committee to Protect Journalists.

Meanwhile, the Canadian government has announced that Foreign Minister Mélanie Joly will chair a virtual meeting on Thursday involving counterparts from around the world, which will hear from women of Iranian heritage and discuss the state of women’s rights in Iran.

“This week, my counterparts and I will gather to send a clear message: the Iranian regime must end all forms of violence and persecution against the Iranian people, including their brutal aggressions against women in particular. Canada will continue to stand by the courageous Iranians who are fighting for their human rights and standing up for their mothers, sisters, wives and daughters. Women’s rights are human rights.”

On Wednesday, a small group of protesters demonstrated in front of Iran’s Embassy in Seoul, with some women cutting off locks of their hair, like others have in demonstrations worldwide since Amini’s death.

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Fred McGriff Baseball Hall of Fame Barry Bonds Roger Clemens

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SAN DIEGO (AP) — Moments after former Toronto Blue Jay Fred McGriff was elected to the Baseball Hall of Fame, almost two decades after his final game, he got the question.

Asked if Barry Bonds belonged in Cooperstown, a smiling McGriff responded: “Honestly, right now, I’m going to just enjoy this evening.”

A Hall of Fame committee delivered its answer Sunday, passing over Bonds, Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling while handing McGriff the biggest honor of his impressive big league career.

The lanky first baseman, nicknamed the “Crime Dog,” spent his first five seasons in Toronto, hitting 125 home runs and 305 RBIs. McGriff led the American League with 36 home runs in 1989, his fourth year with the Blue Jays.

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He hit .284 with 493 homers and 1,550 RBIs over 19 seasons with six major league teams. The five-time All-Star helped Atlanta win the 1995 World Series.

McGriff got 169 votes (39.8%) in his final year on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot in 2019. Now, he will be inducted into Cooperstown on July 23, along with anyone chosen in the writers’ vote, announced Jan. 24.

“It’s all good. It’s been well worth the wait,” said McGriff, who played his last big league game in 2004.

It was the first time that Bonds, Clemens and Schilling had faced a Hall committee since their 10th and final appearances on the Baseball Writers’ Association of America ballot. Bonds and Clemens have been accused of using performance-enhancing drugs, and support for Schilling dropped after he made hateful remarks toward Muslims, transgender people, reporters and others.

While the 59-year-old McGriff received unanimous support from the 16 members of the contemporary baseball era committee — comprised of Hall members, executives and writers — Schilling got seven votes, and Bonds and Clemens each received fewer than four.

The makeup of the committee likely will change over the years, but the vote was another indication that Bonds and Clemens might never make it to the Hall.

This year’s contemporary era panel included Greg Maddux, who played with McGriff on the Braves, along with Paul Beeston, who was an executive with Toronto when McGriff made his big league debut with the Blue Jays in 1986.

Another ex-Brave, Chipper Jones, was expected to be part of the committee, but he tested positive for COVID-19 and was replaced by Arizona Diamondbacks President Derrick Hall.

The contemporary era committee considers candidates whose careers were primarily from 1980 on. A player needs 75% to be elected.

“It’s tough deciding on who to vote for and who not to vote for and so forth,” McGriff said. “So it’s a great honor to be unanimously voted in.”

In addition to all his big hits and memorable plays, one of McGriff’s enduring legacies is his connection to a baseball skills video from youth coach Tom Emanski. The slugger appeared in a commercial for the product that aired regularly during the late 1990s and early 2000s — wearing a blue Baseball World shirt and hat.

McGriff said he has never seen the video.

“Come Cooperstown, I’ve got to wear my blue hat,” a grinning McGriff said. “My Tom Emanski hat in Cooperstown. See that video is going to make a revival now, it’s going to come back.”

Hall of Famers Jack Morris, Ryne Sandberg, Lee Smith, Frank Thomas and Alan Trammell also served on this year’s committee, which met in San Diego at baseball’s winter meetings.

Rafael Palmeiro, Albert Belle, Don Mattingly and Dale Murphy rounded out the eight-man ballot. Mattingly was next closest to election, with eight votes of 12 required. Murphy had six.

Bonds, Clemens and Schilling fell short in January in their final chances with the BBWAA. Bonds received 260 of 394 votes (66%), Clemens 257 (65.2%) and Schilling 231 (58.6%).

Palmeiro was dropped from the BBWAA ballot after receiving 25 votes (4.4%) in his fourth appearance in 2014, falling below the 5% minimum needed to stay on. His high was 72 votes (12.6%) in 2012.

Bonds has denied knowingly using performance-enhancing drugs, and Clemens maintains he never used PEDs. Palmeiro was suspended for 10 days in August 2005 following a positive test under the major league drug program.

A seven-time NL MVP, Bonds set the career home run record with 762 and the season record with 73 in 2001. A seven-time Cy Young Award winner, Clemens went 354-184 with a 3.12 ERA and 4,672 strikeouts, third behind Nolan Ryan (5,714) and Randy Johnson (4,875). Palmeiro had 3,020 hits and 568 homers.

Schilling fell 16 votes shy with 285 (71.1%) on the 2021 BBWAA ballot. The right-hander went 216-146 with a 3.46 ERA in 20 seasons, winning the World Series with Arizona in 2001 and Boston in 2004 and 2007.

Theo Epstein, who also served on the contemporary era committee, was the GM in Boston when the Red Sox acquired Schilling in a trade with the Diamondbacks in November 2003.

Players on Major League Baseball’s ineligible list cannot be considered, a rule that excludes Pete Rose.

___

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Player grades: McD and Drai massive again as Edmonton Oilers beat Montreal Canadiens

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The Edmonton Oilers got off to a two-goal lead thanks to a three goal outburst by its killer power play, but then the Oilers did what they’ve done all year, let up defensively and allow goals against.

But a thrilling goal by Darnell Nurse put Edmonton up one goal with four seconds left in the second, the key moment of the game.

Edmonton hung on in the third for a 5-3 win, with Connor McDavid scoring the insurance goal to cap off a two goal, two assist. night.

In total, Edmonton had 13 Grade A shots, with nine 5-alarmers, Montreal ten Grade A shots, four 5-alarmers, which works out to 4.00 expected goals for the Oil, 2.83 for Montreal.

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Connor McDavid, 9. Scored two goals and two assists. Took a near phantom holding penalty in the first. He set up Drai down low on RNH’s second period power play goal. Buzzed around on Edmonton’s 5-on-3 power play before setting up Draisaitl on the glorious kind of pass-and-shoot sequence that will be forever burned into the minds of Edmonton Oilers fans. He shot when the Montreal goalie Jake Allen was expecting pass, firing in Edmonton’s third goal. Took it to Warp Ten again on his breakway goal, with thrilling finish on Oil’s insurance goal.

Leon Draisaitl, 9. One goal and three assists. Brilliant execution on the attack. Great pass to send in Hyman ten seconds into the game. He snapped a horizontal pass through the top of the crease to set up RNH for Edmonton’s power play goal early in the second. Fired home on the 5-on-3, delivering once against with his dread Executioner’s Shot. He made a few smart plays quickly giving over the puck to the Habs after a penalty call to get more time on the 5-on-3 situations. He made a typically fine pass to set up Nurse for Edmonton’s fourth goal. He won a board battle to again send off Hyman for a Grade A shot early in the third.

Zach Hyman, 7. Another solid and eventful outing. Got an early break in, but failed to drain it, then gave up the puck in the defensive slot leading to a dangerous Habs opportunity. He held his slot position and got off a 5-alarm blast early in the second on the power play. He took a nasty crosscheck to the head early in the second, drawing a five-minute penalty and game misconduct for Joel Edmundson. A great hustle play late in the second to win the puck behind the Montreal net, firing up the Virtuous Cycle leading to Edmonton’s fourth goal.

Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, 7. He slammed home a table top hockey goal early in the second off a Drai feed. Heck of a harpoon, that shot. Sent in Janmark with a fine pass early in the third. Was otherwise quiet on the attack.

Jesse Puljujarvi, 7. Maybe his most physical game of his career, with JP winning many battles. He led the team with eight hits.

Mattias Janmark, 6. He charged out fast and furious on Edmonton’s first PK, and allowed a cross-seam pass, allowing Caufiled’s power play shot off the crossbar in the first. Charged in early in the third on a partial breakaway for a 5-alarm shot.

Derek Ryan, 5. He got beat to the outside by Kaiden Guhle for a Grade A shot early in the game. He lost the PK face off, then failed to stop the pass across on a Montreal’s first period power play blast off the post. He made a key defensive play, kicking the puck out of the slot with just under two minutes left, earning a hug from Stuart Skinner. That one play pulled his mark up to a passing grade.

Klim Kostin, 5. He came out battling hard and set up Nurse charging through the slot early in the second.

Devin Shore, 5. Flashed down the wing late in the second with Malone almost putting in the rebound. He lost the puck and a battle early in the third but Joel Armia hit the crossbar.

Dylan Holloway, 5. He made a solid check on Mike Matheson to win a battle late in the third.

Brad Malone, 5.  A lost battle and a turnover early in the caused the Oilers some defensive grief. He almost jammed home Shore’s rebound shot late in the second.

Tyler Benson, 5. Some decent hustle plays.

Darnell Nurse, 7. He turned the wrong way, allowing time and space for an outside shot, kicking off the Sequence of Pain on Dadonov’s goal. Next, he squandered his own good work on the PK, shooting the puck over the glass to take a penalty. Redeemed himself charging up the ice to snipe in a slot shot with four seconds left in the second. He played a more reasonable 22:31.

Cody Ceci, 6. He lost focus for a second, allowing Dadonov to sneak by him for Montreal’s second goal, but was otherwise solid.

Brett Kulak, 7. Quiet game but he did his job well, keeping a clean sheet at even strength, not one major mistake on a Grade A shot against.

Tyson Barrie, 6. He got beat by Dach down the middle on a break-in shot late in the second. But kept a clean sheet at even strength.

Evan Bouchard, 6. He strangely abandoned his defensive post in the second allowing a hard Montreal shot and potential goal off the rebound. But was otherwise solid.

Philip Broberg, 7. Made a few slick defensive stops in the third, blocking a sure goal late in the game with a shot block in the crease. He’s slowly picking up his play, getting better each game. He stepped up in the n-zone early on to win the puck and send McD in on a rush, a solid and confident play.

Stuart Skinner, 5. Not his best night, letting out big rebounds all game. He got beat by a Grade B scoring chance shot on Montreal’s first goal, not good. He gave up a rancid rebound allowing Dadonov to score out of a nothing situation. He looked back in his net getting beat by Arber Xhekaj for Montreal’s third goal. But stopped Dach’s break in goal late in the second and threw a shut-out in the third period when it counted.

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France advance to World Cup quarterfinals with record-breaking night

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France’s Olivier Giroud, left, celebrates with France’s Kylian Mbappe, after scoring the opening goal during the World Cup round of 16 soccer match between France and Poland, at the Al Thumama Stadium in Doha, Qatar, Sunday, Dec. 4, 2022. (Ebrahim Noroozi/AP)

 

DOHA, Qatar (AP) — It all seems so straightforward — laughable, perhaps — for Kylian Mbappé when it comes to the World Cup.

The France forward, who scored four goals when he led his country to the title four years ago as a 19-year-old phenom, put on yet another demonstration of how devastating he can be on the soccer field.

After it was over, Mbappé almost seemed to be chuckling as Robert Lewandowski came over to congratulate him.

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Mbappé scored two goals Sunday and set up another for Olivier Giroud to give France a 3-1 victory over Poland and move the 2018 champions within three wins of successfully defending their title. He already has a tournament-best five goals in Qatar as Les Bleus have reached the quarterfinals for the third straight World Cup.

“The only objective for me is to win the World Cup,” Mbappé said. “The only thing I dream is this. I came here to win this World Cup. I didn’t come here to win the Golden Ball or Golden Boot. If I win it of course I’m going to be happy but that’s not why I’m here. I’m here to win and I’m here to help the French national team.”

Lewandowski, a two-time FIFA player of the year, scored from the penalty spot in second-half stoppage time for Poland.

France will play England for a spot in the semifinals. The English team beat Senegal 3-0.

Mbappé scored his first goal in the 74th minute when he was left unmarked to blast in a long-range shot following a counterattack. He added another in stoppage time when Poland goalkeeper Wojciech Szczęsny could only get a weak glove on another powerful shot from the man in the No. 10 shirt.

“He can change a match in just a moment and he’s always playing with such joy and we all want to share those smiles with him,” France coach Didier Deschamps said. “France needed a great Kylian Mbappé tonight and they got one.”

Having also provided two assists, Mbappé has easily been the most productive player in Qatar.

After his latest exploits, Mbappé explained why he hadn’t addressed the media in Qatar before Sunday.

“I needed to focus on the tournament and my soccer,” he said through a translator, adding that he had volunteered to pay a French federation fine for his silence. “When I want to concentrate on something that’s the way I function. And that’s why I didn’t want to come speak to you before now.

“I’ve been preparing for this tournament throughout the season, physically and mentally,” he added. “I wanted to be ready for this tournament and I am.”

Mbappé celebrated his second goal by waving his arms for the crowd to cheer louder. Then he hoisted himself up onto the crossbar shortly after the final whistle in front of France’s celebrating fans.

Mbappé already has nine career World Cup goals and if he stays healthy, he could probably play in another three editions of soccer’s biggest event — meaning he might approach the tournament’s career scoring record held by Germany striker Miroslav Klose, who scored 16 goals over four World Cups.

“He hurt us today but I am cheering for him because he is a real star,” Poland coach Czesław Michniewicz said through a translator. “I’m talking about (Lionel) Messi, (Cristiano) Ronaldo, Lewandowski. If someone is going to take over, I think Mbappé will be the player to be the best one (for) many years.”

No country has repeated as World Cup champions in six decades — since Brazil achieved the feat by claiming consecutive trophies in 1958 and 1962. Italy is the only other nation to have won two straight, in 1934 and 1938.

While Lewandowski is a prolific scorer himself, he’s never come close to winning a major title with a Poland team that struggles to get him the ball.

Mbappé, by contrast, is supported by a large array of talented players — even though half a dozen top France players are out injured.

The French team took the lead when Mbappé threaded a pass to Giroud and the AC Milan striker quickly slotted the ball into the far corner. It was Giroud’s 52nd career international goal — breaking a tie with Thierry Henry on France’s all-time scoring list.

After Mbappé leaped into Giroud’s arms to celebrate, pumping his fists, Giroud held up seven fingers to the cameras — five on one hand and two on the other for “52.”

It’s all the more sweet for Giroud because he wasn’t even supposed to be a starter on this year’s squad until Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema was ruled out because of injury. Giroud also scored two goals in France’s opening 4-1 win over Australia.

On a record-setting night for France, goalkeeper Hugo Lloris matched the national team mark of 142 appearances held by Lilian Thuram.

With two European teams playing, there weren’t all that many supporters of either country inside Al Thumama Stadium except for small pockets of France fans beating drums behind one goal and red-and-white clad spectators chanting “Polska” behind the opposite goal. There were also plenty of empty seats.

JEWELRY BREAK

Play was paused briefly in the first half when France defender Jules Kounde was told by a match official to remove two gold chains he was wearing.

France coach Didier Deschamps was asked if Kounde kept the chains on because they displayed a rainbow symbol.

“I don’t know what was on his necklace,” Deschamps said. “Jules is superstitious and he usually wears that necklace even in training.”

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