On Dec. 5, 2017, after determining that Russia had been operating a sophisticated doping operation, the International Olympic Committee suspended the country from participating in the 2018 Winter Olympics. (The ban that would later be extended thru 2022, including the current Games in Beijing).
In announcing the sanction, IOC president Thomas Bach declared Russia was guilty of “an unprecedented attack on the integrity of the Olympic Games.”
Yet despite the tough talk, there was a catch: Russian athletes who had never tested positive for performance-enhancing drugs could still compete under a shadow organization – in this case the “Russian Olympic Committee.”
Basically, it was the same people, same coaches, same colors … and the same win-at-any-cost mindset, just with a new name.
Still, the IOC braced for a reaction.
After all, Russian President Vladimir Putin had warned the IOC against levying sanctions. Russia claimed it was innocent and the real scandal wasn’t that it cheated, but that the United States — fearful of “honest competition” — made up the doping scandal. As such, a boycott, which might include additional Russian-aligned countries, was threatened.
When the “ban” was handed down, though, there was no boycott. There was hardly, at least by Russian standards, much of a reaction. Putin took the deal.
The former KGB agent understood, quite clearly, that he had just put Bach into a gift-wrapped box.
Putin could now cast Russia, via state-run media, as a victim of unfair Western aggression while still sending hero athletes to the Olympics, where their every triumph would be seen as a defiant victory over said Western aggression.
Russia could play the victim and the righteous bully at the same time.
“In the Olympics, it’s never just about figure skating or skiing or any sport,” Sarah Oates, a professor and expert in Russian propaganda at the University of Maryland, told Yahoo Sports. “It’s about national pride … So while the Olympics are supposed to be about how sport brings the world together, in reality, it’s a chance to showcase your own national narratives.”
Fast forward to Russia’s latest doping scandal, the suspension, and then reversal upon repeal, of Russia’s star figure skater, beloved gold medal favorite Kamila Valieva.
The 15-year-old sensation tested positive for trimetazidine, a banned heart medication, according to the International Testing Association. The World Anti-Doping Agency prohibits the drug because it can aid in endurance and increase blood flow.
Valieva was initially suspended on Feb. 8 by the Russian Anti-Doping Agency but the next day, the same body reversed that decision upon appeal (Yes, the IOC was letting an anti-doping agency of a country it suspended for doping handle this). The IOC is now appealing that decision to a separate governing body.
Valieva may still be expelled from the Games. It would likely cause Russia to be stripped of a gold medal in the team event and Valieva to miss next week’s women’s individual competition. Or she could avoid any suspension and continue on. A decision will come in the next few days.
Whatever happens next, however, hardly matters for Putin’s purposes. The scandal isn’t a negative, it is an opportunity with almost no downside.
“The doping accusation could be propaganda gold for the Russians,” Oates said.
It is possible, or even likely, that due to Valieva’s age, Russian coaches and officials were purposely doping a child because there was no concern of what would happen. Maybe they create the greatest skater on earth. Or maybe they get caught. Big picture, it hardly matters.
“In a tense political climate, Russia can make propaganda from doping accusations against a teen athlete who is a national heroine,” Oates said.
This is the straitjacket the IOC stitched for itself by lacking the courage, conviction and foresight to just ban Russia outright from the Olympics.
“We took tough action,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said, defending the pseudo ban. “We don’t have the Russian team competing in the same way. They aren’t allowed to have the flag or the anthem and many other things. It’s quite a tough sanction.”
The ramifications of that “tough” action just grows bigger and bigger though, like ripples from a pebble thrown into a lake.
“It fits their constant ‘us against the West’ narrative, claiming that the athletes were unfairly treated as further evidence of how Russia is treated badly in the world in general,” Oates said. “The Russians either spin or ignore the strong evidence of doping. Playing into what your audience wants to hear — that Russia is a victim instead of one who did something wrong — is a powerful strategy.”
If Valieva’s appeal is upheld and she gets to compete, then Russia stood tall and strong against a system that knew it couldn’t defeat her on the ice. Valieva can then proceed to triumphantly destroy the field, that gold medal serving as a middle finger from Moscow.
“Hold your head up, you’re a Russian,” government spokesman Dmitry Peskov already urged Valieva while deeming this all a “misunderstanding,” according to Reuters. “Go proudly and beat everyone.”
Yet if she is disqualified, then the Russia vs. Everyone narrative gains even more strength. Meanwhile, the stage is set for vindication via teammates Anna Shcherbakova and Alexandra Trusova.
Along with Valieva, the two 17-year-olds are the only female skaters at the Olympics expected to even attempt high-scoring quads. (That only Russians can accomplish this feat is suspicious enough). The three Russians were heavy favorites to own the podium, gold-silver-bronze.
Even if Valieva is out, the other two can avenge her disqualification by taking gold-silver. It’s “Miracle on Ice” kind of stuff, Russian style.
So no matter what happens, this is what is likely to happen.
At least per the narrative inside Russia, which is what matters most to Putin. What appears complicated, may actually be simple.
Either way, Russia wins.
Thomas Bach and the IOC foolishly got tricked into setting up a game with no other conclusion. Now there’s no way out.
This Battle of Alberta won’t be like the past, but the emotion will be unmatched – Sportsnet.ca
EDMONTON — It’s been 31 years, so long that a generation really only knows the Battle of Alberta in snap shots from Hockey Night in Canada videos.
Gretzky down the wing on Vernon. Smith, in off of Fuhr. Fleury break dancing across the Northlands Coliseum logo. Dave Brown, startin’ the lawn mower on Jim Kyte.
Glen Sather, alternately cheering an OT goal in Calgary and issuing a hand gesture to Flames fans that would have garnered him a healthy fine today.
We’re here to tell you: societal norms dictate that the old Battle of Alberta will never be re-lived. This can not be that.
But although we might know what we’re NOT going to see when the Calgary Flames hook up with the Edmonton Oilers starting on Wednesday night, you never know what you might see in a matchup set to consume this prairie province for the first time since 1991. A grudge match that — in its best days — was as good a rivalry as the National Hockey League has seen in all its many years.
“You always knew going into it that there was going to be bloodshed, and it was going to be some of your own,” former Oilers (and Flames) defenceman Steve Smith said in my book, The Battle of Alberta. “It was real then. There were going to be fights and you were expected to be part of fights and physical hockey.”
“They were big, strong, physical,” added Edmonton defenceman Jeff Beukeboom. “They were dirty. Just like us,”
The sheer violence does not exist anymore, and for that the NHL is a better place. But the emotion that has gone missing with that violence?
That, we’d like to surgically implant back into the game, like a ligament from a cadaver that could put the hop back in the step of a league where too many players are buddy-buddy, asking how the wife and kids are rather than putting a glove in their opponent’s face.
It was that emotion that fuelled the high-octane dragster that was The Battle.
Emotion that would drive Doug Risebrough to slink into the penalty box with an Oilers jersey purloined from the latest Pier 6 brawl, and slice it into ribbons with his skates. Emotion injected into a practice from Flames head coach Bob Johnson, who dressed a Junior A goalie in an Oilers jersey so his players could feel the thrill of blowing pucks past a Grant Fuhr lookalike.
“That’s the thing we’re missing in the game today. Emotion,” said former Flames goalie Mike Vernon. “Those games had so much emotion, and there was a price that had to be paid. Like the time Dave Brown fought Stu Grimson. Grimmer sat in the penalty box for 10 minutes with a broken face.
“You want to see real? That’s real.”
Emotion from players who knew, this wasn’t going to be a normal game. And if I play like it is, I won’t survive it.
“I had no problem [expletive] cuttin’ your eye out. Wouldn’t have bothered me a bit,” said Theoren Fleury, a small man who cut a big swath through the Battle. “Hey – you’re trying to [expletive] kill me? This was survival. It was that unpredictability that allowed me to have the room that I had.”
On a macro level, Edmonton and Calgary have always been contesting each other.
They fought over who would get the first Canadian Pacific Railway terminal (Calgary), way back in the 1800s. They argued over who would be designated the provincial capital, or lay claim to the University of Alberta in the early 1900s (Edmonton, and Edmonton).
Today the contest has been mostly won by the city that is simply 300 kilometres closer to the rest of the world than its rival. Calgary is the Dallas to Edmonton’s Houston, where the oil patch is concerned, an industry orchestrated by the white collars in the South, but serviced and operated by blue collars up North.
But where all this has impacted the sports scene is this: Anecdotally, more people born in Edmonton continue to live in Edmonton, while Calgary has become a city more rich in people from elsewhere; Edmonton is a city you leave, whereas Calgary has become somewhere people come to, with allegiances to other teams in tow.
That assessment is subjective, sure, but it’s backed up by the fact the Oilers tend to post better media numbers than the Flames do, whether it’s radio, TV or print. There is simply more local interest in Edmonton’s team than Calgary’s, a phenomenon that will be invisible to the naked eye these next two weeks.
When the original Battle began however, there was no question who was the big brother, and who was the little one.
Edmonton had joined the NHL from the old World Hockey Association in 1979, and the Flames arrived from Atlanta a year later. Soon, Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Grant Fuhr, Paul Coffey et al. were clearly a group the Flames could not match, or catch up to via the draft. So the Flames, with former University of Wisconsin coach Bob Johnson behind their bench, built a team using older college grads like Joe Nieuwendyk, Joe Mullen, Joel Otto, Jamie Macoun and Gary Suter.
In the end, the Flames only won one of five playoff meetings between the two, but they played the Boston Red Sox to Edmonton’s New York Yankees, or Don Cherry’s Boston Bruins to the 70’s Habs that were Edmonton.
“Ali needed Frazier,” Messier once said. “That top opponent that pushes, and challenges, and makes you better.”
As the two teams ready for a meeting beginning Wednesday night in Calgary, that old Saddledome is perhaps the only visual that will provide a similar look, outside the familiar jerseys of each team. The landscape is unfamiliar, with teams full of players who have never faced each other in a post-season series.
Two teams who once combined for 780 goals in a season settled for 576 this season. And penalty minutes?
Forget about it…
In 2022 however, there are some similarities. Connor McDavid will play the part of Wayne Gretzky, while the Elias Lindholm line will lend depth and execution the way Johnson’s old Flames would attack Edmonton using his oft-referenced — but never actually seen — “Seven Point Plan” to beat the Oilers.
Today Matthew Tkachuk is the spoon that stirs the emotional bouillabaisse, whereas before it was Esa Tikkanen or Neil Sheehy, the Flames defenceman and Gretzky-pesterer whose refusal to fight anyone on Edmonton wound the Oilers up like a top.
When it’s done, all we can hope for is some lasting memories, some players who might not tee it up together the way they may have a summer ago, and two organizations that see each other as they once did — as the in-division hurdle that had to be jumped on the way to a Stanley Cup.
“All the most important, most memorable team meetings we ever had were held in that dressing room in Calgary,” Craig MacTavish once said. “We were the best two teams in the NHL of that day, and we would meet very early in the playoffs.
“They were absolute wars,” he added. “A pleasure to be a part of, in hindsight.”
We leave you with this anecdote, from Beukeboom.
“I think it was a pre-season game,” he began. “I was going up ice and got two-handed on the back of the legs by Fleury. Whack! I remember a pile-up in the corner one day, after Simmer (Craig Simpson) had taken out their goalie, and Fleury was running his mouth. ‘You guys suck. You can’t skate, you big [expletive].’ So now we’re in the pile in the corner, and he’s on top of me. But, we come out of it together, and now he’s saying, ‘It’s OK. I’ve got you. No problem.’ Like, now he’s being a nice guy.”
So, what did Beukeboom do? Exactly what Fleury would have done, had the shoe been on the other foot
“I suckered him. Cut him open for stitches,” he said. “It was one of the few times [head coach] John Muckler paid me a compliment.”
Barkov, Bergeron, Lindholm named as Selke Trophy finalists – Sportsnet.ca
The Calgary Flames‘ Elias Lindholm joined fellow centres Aleksander Barkov of the Florida Panthers and Patrice Bergeron of the Boston Bruins as one of three finalists named for the Frank J. Selke Trophy, the NHL announced Tuesday.
The award, which is given “to the forward who best excels in the defensive aspects of
the game,” is voted on by members of the Professional Hockey Writers Association, with the top three vote-getters listed as finalists.
Lindholm, 27, has never won the award, but posted a plus-61 rating that was second only in the league to teammate Johnny Gaudreau’s plus-64. The Swedish centre was the fifth-best in the league at faceoffs, with a 52.9 per cent success rate in 1,592 attempts.
Barkov, who won the Selke last year, led the Panthers to the Presidents’ Trophy this season with the league’s best record. The 26-year-old from Finland posted a career-best 57 per cent success rate in faceoffs and led his team’s forwards in average ice time (20:18) for the fifth straight year. His plus-36 was fourth best in the league amongst forwards.
Bergeron, who may retire this off-season, has won the Selke four times in his 19-year career, which is tied with former Montreal Canadiens great Bob Gainey for the most in NHL history. The 36-year-old from L’Ancienne-Lorette, Que., has been a finalist for the Selke 11 times and led the league this season for the seventh time in his career in faceoff wins, with a success rate of 61.9 per cent.
The NHL plans on revealing its 2022 award winners during the Conference Finals and Stanley Cup Final.
England to host 2025 Women’s Rugby World Cup
World Rugby (WR) has named England as the host nation for the 2025 Women’s Rugby World Cup.
In addition, WR also unanimously approved Australia as hosts for the men’s World Cup in 2027 and the women’s in 2029 with the United States (US) hosting the men’s tournament for the first time in 2031 and the women’s in 2033.
WR is hoping to generate US$1 billion from the World Cup in 2031 as it seeks to tap into the US’ vast sporting culture and commercial potential.
“The USA is the golden nugget everyone wants to get a hold of. It’s the world’s biggest sporting market,” said WR chairperson, Sir Bill Beaumont.
2031 and 2033 World Cups have 25 or so venue bids on the table from all over the country. WR delegates have already been shown around the Denver Bronco’s impressive Empower Field home. One possibility could see the tournament start in the west of the country and gradually move east. There is also the possibility of using localized pools, where each group plays in a different part of the country before congregating for its grand finish.
The whole process is expected to cost in the region of US$500 million and has already received bipartisan support, alongside the seal of approval from President Joe Biden, who wrote a letter to Sir Beaumont promising regulatory support and infrastructural guarantees.
In the US, there have been many attempts to crack the market, but none have yet succeeded. However, the continued presence of rugby in the Olympics, the growing footprint of Major League Rugby (MLR) and an acceptance of where things went wrong in the past, means there is optimism around the next decade.
The US men’s team faces one of the biggest games in their history in June when they have their two-legged playoff against Chile for a spot in the 2023 Rugby World Cup scheduled to take place in France from the 8th of September to the 28th of October 2023.
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