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Russia issue looms for Paris Olympics, Zelenskyy rebukes IOC

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GENEVA (AP) — The question of if and how Russia competes at the Olympics hangs over the 2024 Paris Summer Games.

Just as it has now for five straight Olympics during Thomas Bach’s leadership of the IOC, whose support this week for some Russians to compete in Paris was publicly challenged Friday by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

Russia and its athletes have been at risk of being banned — though ultimately competed — at each Olympics since the steroid-tainted 2014 Sochi Winter Games that was Bach’s first as president of the International Olympic Committee.

This time it is Russia waging war on Ukraine. Previously it was Russian state-backed doping and then Russian authorities trying to cover up evidence of that scandal.

Zelenskyy wants Russia excluded from taking part in Paris while its military is occupying and attacking his country. He stressed that this week in talks with French President Emmanuel Macron.

Ukraine’s sports minister first warned on Thursday of boycotting the Olympics. That was after the IOC detailed its preferred pathway to let Russians who have not openly supported the war to qualify for Paris and compete as neutral athletes against Ukrainians.

“It is obvious that any neutral flag of Russian athletes is stained with blood. I invite Mr. Bach to Bakhmut,” Zelenskyy said in a video address, referring to the city in eastern Ukraine wrecked by the war. “So that he could see with his own eyes that neutrality does not exist.”

The IOC was more strident on Russia when the military invasion started within days of the Beijing Winter Games closing ceremony. It was an egregious breach of the United Nations-backed Olympic Truce that is prized by Bach.

Last February, the IOC recommended “with a heavy heart” sports bodies exclude Russia and Belarus from hosting and competing “in order to protect the integrity of global sports competitions and for the safety of all the participants.”

It could not be fair for Russians to continue competing while “many athletes from Ukraine are prevented from doing so because of the attack on their country,” the IOC said last Feb. 28.

Now, 18 months before the Paris opening ceremony and as qualifying ramps up in the 32 sports, the IOC’s revised public stance has provoked anger from Ukraine.

“If we are not heard, I do not rule out the possibility that we will boycott and refuse participation in the Olympics,” Ukrainian sports minister Vadym Guttsait wrote Thursday on his Facebook account.

One of Ukraine’s top medal prospects does not want to share the stage with Russians — even if such a symbol of peaceful tolerance is exactly how the IOC sees its “unifying mission” to bring all 206 national Olympic teams together.

“They died for me, really they don’t exist in my life,” said Yaroslava Mahuchikh, the high jumper whose rivalry from 2019-21 with Russian champion Mariya Lasitskene made theirs a standout event.

Mahuchikh told German broadcaster DW Sports this week that Ukrainian athletes “will do everything that is possible” to keep out athletes from Russia, which she called a “terrorist state.”

In Bach’s home country Germany, the Athleten Deutschland group said Friday many of its members find it “difficult to imagine contesting competitions against Russian athletes under the current conditions.”

“No athlete should be prevented from competing just because of their passport,” the IOC stressed Wednesday, though this was often not true in Olympic history.

Germany and Japan, the aggressors of World War II, were not invited to the 1948 London Olympics. South Africa was excluded from 1964 through 1988 because of its racist Apartheid laws.

The IOC points instead to the more recent example of Yugoslavians competing at the 1992 Barcelona Games as “independent athletes” while the nation was under UN sanctions during a civil war.

Bach wants to separate athletes from the actions of their government, and has called the situation a dilemma for a stated aim to “always embrace human diversity and never to exclude others.”

That philosophy rankles with Zelenskyy, who can be a compelling advocate for a blanket ban on Russia that was resisted when demanded in the past decade by athletes, the World Anti-Doping Agency or activist groups.

If Russians are allowed to compete, their path to Olympic qualification likely will go through Asia due to Russia’s tense relations with its European neighbors.

Paris is the last of six Olympics for Bach’s presidency before hitting his 12-year term limit in 2025. A presidency that began in September 2013 with an instant congratulatory phone call from President Vladimir Putin has always had a major Russian theme.

After the Sochi laboratory doping scheme was detailed in 2016, Russia sent a limited team — though still nearly 300 athletes — to the Rio Janeiro Games and has been denied its flag and anthem at each Olympics since.

Yet while Russians always were at the Olympics, they were banned entirely from track and field’s world championships last July in Eugene, Oregon.

“The world is horrified by what Russia has done, aided and abetted by Belarus,” World Athletics President Sebastian Coe said within days of the war starting. “Sport has to step up and join these efforts to end this war and restore peace. We cannot and should not sit this one out.”

Track’s ongoing Russia ban excludes Lasitskene, the three-time defending champion in high jump. Last year she wrote an open letter to Bach, who could not defend his team fencing title at the 1980 Moscow Olympics because of the West German boycott after the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.

“I have no doubts,” she wrote, “that you don’t have the courage and dignity to lift the sanctions against Russian athletes.”

This week, Bach set governing bodies of some Olympic sports on the path to do just that.

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More AP sports: https://apnews.com/hub/apf-sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

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Preseason Opener: Enzo Maresca’s Chelsea Takes on Wrexham

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Welcome to the first match of the summer, the first preseason game, and the first chance to see Enzo Maresca’s Chelsea in action. While the main focus today is on fitness, this game will undoubtedly spark analysis and excitement among fans.

Football, sort of, is back! Let’s see how the teams line up for this highly anticipated friendly.

Chelsea Starting XI:

  • Sánchez
  • James (c)
  • Tosin
  • Badiashile
  • Colwill
  • Lavia
  • Chukwuemeka
  • Nkunku
  • Madueke
  • Guiu
  • George

Substitutes:

  • Beach
  • Bergström
  • W. Fofana
  • Veiga
  • Acheampong
  • Gusto
  • Chilwell
  • Santos
  • Ugochukwu
  • Sterling
  • Ângelo
  • Broja

Wrexham Starting XI:

  • Okonkwo
  • Cleworth
  • Brunt
  • O’Connor
  • Bolton
  • Jones
  • Dobson
  • Lee
  • Revan
  • Palmer
  • McClean (c)

Substitutes:

  • Howard
  • Burton
  • Boyle
  • Barnett
  • James
  • Forde
  • Evans
  • Ashfield
  • Cannon
  • Davies
  • Bickerstaff
  • Waters
  • Dalby
  • Marriott

Match Details:

  • Date / Time: Wednesday, July 24, 7pm PDT; 3am BST (next day); 7:30am IST (next day)
  • Venue: Levi’s Stadium, Santa Clara, CA, USA
  • On TV: ESPN (USA); none (UK); elsewhere
  • Streaming: ESPN+ (USA); Chelsea TV (int’l pay-per-view)

Both teams will be eager to test their tactics and players ahead of the upcoming season. Chelsea fans are particularly excited to see how new manager Enzo Maresca will shape the team, while Wrexham supporters are keen to see their team perform against top-tier opposition.

Let’s see how the starting formation and tactics unfold as we get a first glimpse of what’s to come this season. Stay tuned for an exciting game!ea

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Malaika Mihambo and Dennis Schröder Lead Germany’s Diverse Olympic Team to Paris 2024

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“The goals have definitely not changed,” Malaika Mihambo declared in a recent television interview, reaffirming her determination to compete in the 2024 Olympic Games despite a recent setback from a coronavirus infection. The 30-year-old long jumper aims to defend her Olympic gold medal, which she won in Tokyo in 2021.

While Mihambo is a seasoned Olympian, Paris 2024 will mark a special debut for Dennis Schröder, the captain of Germany’s 2023 world champion basketball team. “It has always been a goal of mine to be at the Olympic Games,” said the 30-year-old Brooklyn Nets player.

Mihambo and Schröder are among the stars of the German Olympic team, which showcases remarkable diversity with around 450 top athletes. This team includes individual talents such as tennis stars Angelique Kerber, the silver medallist at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, and Alexander Zverev, the 2021 Olympic champion in Tokyo. Notable teams include the men’s basketball team led by Schröder, the women’s football team, and the men’s handball team.

Among the experienced Olympic stars is table tennis player Timo Boll, who has won several team medals and is immensely popular in China and beyond. Dressage rider Isabell Werth, with seven Olympic gold medals, aims to match the all-time record of nine gold medals held by Soviet gymnast Larissa Latynina.

Some German athletes, though not yet household names, have garnered attention with impressive performances leading up to the Games. In athletics, the women’s 4×100 meter relay team, decathlete Leo Neugebauer, and marathon runner Amanal Petros stand out. Trend sports also feature promising talents like surfers Camilla Kemp and Tim Elter, and 17-year-old skateboarder Lilly Stoephasius, who will compete in her second Olympic Games.

Swimmer Angelina Köhler has recently emerged as a star, winning gold in the 100 meter butterfly at the 2024 World Championships. Köhler, who has openly discussed her ADHD diagnosis, described participating in the Olympics as fulfilling “a very, very big childhood dream.”

As Germany heads to Paris, this diverse and dynamic team aims to leave a significant mark on the 2024 Olympic Games.

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Thomas Müller: The End of an Era for Germany’s Iconic #13

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It is difficult to write something about Thomas Müller that hasn’t been written before, yet at the same time, it is difficult to capture his essence in mere words. That alone is an indicator of his distinctive nature as a person and brilliance as a footballer.

It is said commonly, there will never be another Thomas Müller. And that rings true today more than ever, for Germany, for football.

Germany has dominated world football so often throughout history, each era marked by superstars in their own right. And even then, Thomas Müller remains unique, apart from the rest. The idea of a dominant die Mannschaft in the ‘modern era’ of football immediately prompts the mental image of an overjoyed Müller wearing any variation of the iconic white-black German kits, busy shouting in celebration amidst the euphoria of scoring yet another goal for his country on the biggest of stages.

Efficient, unorthodox, enigmatic – yet somehow simple. Everywhere he needed to be on the pitch, yet he left the greatest of defenders oblivious, unable to predict his next move. A goalscorer and creator simultaneously and equally brilliant at doing both. Unapologetically himself – both on and off the pitch.

You’d never be mesmerized by Müller’s touch, flair, or skills. But you’d be mesmerized nonetheless. Unpredictable off-the-ball movement, a surprise element with the ball, and a shot from such unbelievable angles that you’d never believe how it found the net. And even then what forever remained stuck in the minds of fans and opponents alike was the scene that followed after his heroics in the opposition box — a group of elated Germans heralding around Müller as the scoreboard reads a scoreline just as memorable.

A little boy from the south of Bavaria had a dream and had the entire world watch as he lived it to the fullest. Müller represented his country a total of 131 times and somehow every single time he was a pleasure to watch and a menace to face. The lights were bright, but he shone brighter.

His football was messy but incredibly effective. Tall, scrawny, and the furthest thing from muscular, but it worked to his advantage. He was never the “typical footballer” — concerning both his personality and playstyle. He was so good at everything going forward that the orthodox football terms didn’t apply. No problem for Müller – “Ich bin ein Raumdeuter,” said the star clearing things up about his position and inventing a role in football no one other than himself has or ever will truly master.

Germany’s first game at the 2010 World Cup saw Müller walk onto the pitch with the number 13 on his back. The same number was coincidentally also worn by legendary German striker Gerd Müller at the ‘76 finals. Thomas scored that night — it was the first of 45 goals he would go on to score for his nation. The fans (and notably Gerd himself) were overjoyed to see a German named Müller, squad number #13, scoring for Germany again after so many decades.

Speaking postgame about his first international goal, Müller said while laughing: “I was just trying to boost the sales of the Müller replica shirts!” – the first of many playful Müller interviews after a masterclass for Germany. 14 years and 44 goals later, Thomas has made that jersey number his as much as it was Gerd’s.

Thomas Müller — forever Germany’s beloved #13.

What once was a need to prove himself and do everything in his power to lead his country to victory turned into a feeling of grounded pride for what he’s greatly helped achieve, but the desire to win never died. Müller, even after everything, still put in the same effort he did on day one.

There was never a dull moment watching Müller play for his country. Not everything has changed — over all these years, Müller has had the same playfulness, the same laugh, the same witty statements that never failed to make fans smile. He is just as loveable as a person as he is as a footballer. “I don’t have any muscles – how can I get hurt?”, or “I already have one Golden Boot, what will I do with another?” Müller captivated audiences with both his football and his words.

Müller playing for Germany is what made myself (and so many others) a fan of the beautiful game – because the game was only beautiful when Müller had the ball. A mesmerized young boy and a superstar footballer formed an unlikely, one-sided bond over the television screen a decade ago, and that bond only strengthened over the years.

As Müller announces his international retirement today, it is difficult to fathom that we might never see such an icon play for Germany ever again. We might never see him celebrate or joke around in the Germany shirt. We might never see someone represent everything German football stood for as well as Müller did. We might never see him film a challenge video with Mats Hummels at the German camp. And we might never forget the heartbreak of his last game for Germany.

Yet we as fans can look back on one of the greatest international careers of all time. His antics on the world stage are some of the best highlights of a career filled with highlights. There is no need to mention his countless achievements for his country – he is the most decorated German player of all time after all. Even then, Müller, who has always had impeccable timing knew exactly when it was his time to depart. He didn’t want to push it or ever make things about himself.

Müller’s iconic moments turned into unforgettable games. Those unforgettable games made legendary tournaments. And those legendary tournaments? They are the crown jewels of an illustrious career.

So here is a thank you, from the bottom of our hearts – thank you for showing us what football is really about. Thank you for some of the greatest memories a football fan could ask for. Thank you for always giving everything on the pitch, and finally – thank you for being yourself. We will never forget Thomas Müller in the iconic German white. Danke, Thomas.

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