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Visa denials denounced at Montreal AIDS conference, federal minister cancels speech

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MONTREAL — The International AIDS Society will re-evaluate how it organizes international conferences as a result of visa denials by the Canadian government, the organization’s president said Friday in Montreal.

The comments came as International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan cancelled a planned appearance at the conference.

Adeeba Kamarulzaman told attendees at the opening ceremony of the AIDS 2022 conference that she is “deeply upset by the high number of denials and pending visas that prevented many registered delegates, including IAS staff and leadership, from entering Canada.”

She said the International AIDS Society, the association of HIV/AIDS professionals that organizes the conference, wants to ensure its conferences include the communities most affected by HIV.

“We know that underlying the difficulty experienced by many attendees of AIDS 2022 to enter Canada, lies a broader problem of global inequity and systemic racism that significantly impacts global health,” she said. “HIV, in particular, has always disproportionately affected the most marginalized.”

Other speakers had strong criticism for Canada’s visa policies. Activist and writer Tim McCaskill told attendees that if countries like Canada aren’t up to allowing “all stakeholders” to attend, “then we need to hold these conference in places that are.”

At one point during the opening ceremony, a group of protesters took the stage, condemning the visa denials and inequalities in the global response to HIV. “No more AIDS conferences in racist countries,” one woman said as she made a short speech.

Sajjan had been scheduled to speak at the conference opening, but he cancelled and was not replaced by another Canadian government representative. He had also been scheduled to participate in a conference session later in the day.

Sajjan’s office said “operational issues” prevented him from attending. “We remain steadfast supporters of UNAIDS, the Global Fund and our trusted partners,” Haley Hodgson, a spokeswoman for the minister, said in an email, referring to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.

Omar Sharif Jr., the master of ceremonies of the opening event, said Sajjan had notified organizers of the cancellation “a short while ago,” drawing boos from the crowd.

Winnie Byanyima, the executive director of UNAIDS, said she was “sad the government of Canada isn’t here.”

In her speech, she called for a more just world, where everyone has access to quality health care and where those living with HIV don’t face stigma, “including a world where people from the global south are not denied entry into wealthy countries to bring their expertise,” she added.

Friday afternoon, Sajjan announced in a news release that the Canadian government will provide $15 million in funding to UNAIDS for 2023 to 2025.

“Far too many continue to die at an unacceptable rate because of HIV/AIDS,” he said. “We need to all re-engage to benefit our communities and nations, and our world. No one should be left behind.”

The conference, which draws researchers, medical practitioners, activists and people living with HIV, focuses both on scientific progress in the fight against AIDS and the need for increased funding for HIV response.

UNAIDS, the Joint United Nations Program on HIV/AIDS, has said that millions of lives are at risk due to disruptions in HIV care caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and declining funding for HIV response.

“As new infections are rising in many regions and access to treatment is slowing, how can it be right also that funding is declining?” Byanyima said to reporters earlier on Friday.

One of the messages of the conference is that if treatment has rendered the viral load undetectable, the virus is no longer transmissible.

That applies both to sexual partners and to pregnant HIV-positive women who could pass the virus on to children, said Maurine Murenga, the director of the Lean on Me Foundation. Her Kenyan organization works with adolescent girls and young women living with HIV or affected by tuberculosis.

“When I was diagnosed with HIV 20 years ago, I was given six months to live because there was no treatment. I didn’t know I would live long enough to come to a point where people living with HIV, on effective treatment, cannot pass HIV to our partners,” she told reporters.

The conference runs through Tuesday, and more than 9,000 delegates are expected to attend in person, with another 2,000 registered to participate remotely.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published July 29, 2022.

 

Jacob Serebrin, The Canadian Press

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Cecile and Laurent Landi helped Simone Biles reach new heights. The Olympics serve as a homecoming

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SPRING, Texas (AP) — Cecile Canqueteau-Landi fit “in the box,” as she put it. She was skinny. She was blonde. She was pretty good at gymnastics.

And so at 9 years old, she was whisked away to become part of the French national team program, a path that ultimately led her to the 1996 Olympics.

There was reward in that journey. Yet looking back nearly three decades later, Landi wonders how many promising young athletes had their careers and their lives altered — and not for the better — because they didn’t fit someone’s preconceived notion of what a gymnast needed to look like by the time they reached their 10th birthday.

When Landi transitioned into coaching in the early 2000s, she vowed not to make the same mistake.

So maybe it’s not a coincidence that when Landi and her husband, Laurent — himself a former French national team member — walk onto the floor at Bercy Arena for women’s Olympics qualifying next Sunday, they will do it while leading the oldest U.S. women’s gymnastics team — headlined by 27-year-old Simone Biles — the Americans have ever sent to a modern Games.

A healthy partnership

In another country in another era, maybe Biles becomes something other than an icon.

“An athlete like Simone would never have reached her full potential in France,” said Cecile. “Because she would have been put aside because she didn’t fit that box.”

For the Landis — who began coaching Biles in 2017 — there is no “box.” There can’t be.

“It’s not the athlete that needs to adjust to the coaches,” Laurent Landi said. “The coaches need to adjust to the athletes and the athlete’s abilities.”

Biles was already 20 and the reigning Olympic champion when the Landis agreed to helm the elite program at World Champions Centre, the massive gym run by the Biles family in the Houston suburbs.

They knew Biles fairly well at the time, having already coached gymnasts who competed alongside Biles at several world championships and the 2016 Olympics. During the interview process, all three agreed there was no point — and no fun — in having Biles merely try to hold on to her otherworldly talent. To keep her engaged, they needed to make sure she kept moving forward.

The result has been perhaps the best gymnastics of Biles’ remarkable career, a stretch that includes three world all-around titles and another handful of entries in the sport’s Code of Points with her name next to them, from the triple-double on floor exercise to the Yurchenko double pike vault that drew a standing ovation at the Olympic trials last month.

Biles views her relationship with the Landis as more of a partnership.

“They’ve been big mentors in like my adulthood (because) they got to see and harness the more mature Simone,” Biles said. “They’ve helped me a lot not just in the gym but out of the gym, too.”

When Biles moved into her first house, Cecile came over and showed her how to operate the dishwasher. When a gymnast who had just gotten their driver’s license had a problem with one of her tires, Cecile went to a nearby gas station and gave a tutorial on how to use the air pump.

“If we can help and they want the help, then why not?” she said, with a laugh.

Changing with the times

The trick is finding a way to provide that help safely and productively, particularly amid a culture shift in the sport aimed at empowering athletes to take ownership of their gymnastics. It is a delicate needle to thread. What serves as motivation for one athlete could be construed negatively by another.

It’s a reality the Landis are well aware of as they try to find the proper balance between being too rigid and too lax. They grew up in a time when the coach/athlete relationship was one-sided. There was no back and forth. There was no discussion. The coach set the standards and expectations. The athlete met them or they didn’t last long.

The shift toward a more cooperative approach was overdue, but that doesn’t mean it is always easy. Laurent Landi acknowledges he’s not the most patient coach, although those around him say he has mellowed a bit over the years. He also understands if he wants to keep doing this for a living, he didn’t have much of a choice.

“Yeah, there will be frustration,” he said. “But you can always go around some stuff and just take your pride (as a coach) away and make sure that the athletes still get the skill done.”

It’s an approach that helped World Champion Centre’s elite program send five athletes to the Olympic trials, with Biles and Jordan Chiles making the five-woman U.S. team while Joscelyn Roberson and Tiana Sumanasekera were selected as alternates.

It’s the kind of success Roberson envisioned when she moved to the Houston suburbs a few years ago to train under the Landis. She was intimidated at first before realizing her new coaches “have a million different ways to coach one skill,” a marked departure from what she was used to.

The goal is to meet the athletes where they are at on a given day, understanding no two gymnasts are the same and what works for one might not necessarily work for another. Perhaps even more importantly, they have learned to evolve as the nature of coaching evolves.

“We’re not always right,” Laurent said. “If you do your own way all the time, you will hurt the majority of the athletes. Maybe one will survive and will be an amazing person, amazing athlete but the (other) 90%, they will be broken. … We had to adjust to Simone, otherwise we would have broke her.”

It’s not just Biles’ age they had to accommodate, but her schedule. She is no longer a precocious teenager who buries herself in the gym. She’s a newlywed whose schedule is packed with everything from corporate commitments to building a house and a family with her husband, Chicago Bears safety Jonathan Owens.

“When (we) tell him he just hears ‘you’re missing practice’ and kind of freaks out,” Biles said. “Because he sees all the end goals and then he gets the calendar and then he’s like: ’Oh, OK, that’s fine. We’ll do this today, we’ll do that.’ So it just takes time for him to process.”

Biles certainly appears well-prepared. She arrives in Paris at the height of her powers more than a decade after ascending to the top of her sport. She’ll be accompanied by a pair of coaches who view the trip as more of a business trip than a homecoming.

A new challenge awaits

While the Landis have been approached to take over the women’s national team program in France in recent years, returning never made much sense to them even with the women’s program is in the midst of a resurgence.

“I think our family will be very proud, probably more than we are,” Cecile Landi said. “Because in a weird way, it’s just work for us.”

And perhaps, goodbye, too.

Cecile, long a supporter of NCAA gymnastics, earlier this year agreed to become the co-head coach at the University of Georgia. Laurent will remain at World Champions Centre in the short term until daughter Juliette — who will dive for France during the Games — graduates from high school next spring.

After that, who knows? The young gymnast put in a box has become a coach who no longer puts limitations on anyone, herself maybe most of all.

“I think I’ve done everything I could do in elite, and beyond what I could ever have imagined as a little French girl in a little town,” Cecile said. “I’ve coached the greatest of all time. I’ve coached many kids. I’ve had many great athletes in NCAA and elite that I feel like I want to try what’s next, a new challenge.”

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US women’s Olympic basketball knows it has work to do after loss to WNBA team

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PHOENIX (AP) — There is no panic in the U.S. women’s Olympic team. The Americans have been in this spot before.

The U.S. lost to the WNBA All-Star team on Saturday night 117-109 and are headed on a flight to London to continue their prep for the Paris Olympics. Breanna Stewart said it felt like deja vu and she wasn’t wrong.

The 2021 Olympic team also lost to the WNBA All-Star team in a tune-up to the Tokyo Games. They went on to cruise to a seventh consecutive gold medal.

Just like in the 2021 exhibition game, the Americans had no answer for Arike Ogunbowale.

The MVP of Saturday night’s game scored all 34 of her points in the second half of the victory. She also had earned MVP honors in 2021.

“We’ll take this one on the chin, keep moving forward,” Stewart said. “Don’t want to peak too soon. We’re excited to get to London and really focus on this team and what our ultimate goal is.”

That goal is continuing one of the greatest Olympic streaks ever. The Americans haven’t lost a game in the Olympics since 1992.

“This is going to help us tremendously. We don’t get that many game opportunities,” said Stewart, who had 31 points to lead the U.S. ”We can go back and watch the film and focus on how we can continue to be better. It was like a little bit of deja vu feeling but just locking in.”

The U.S. women’s team is scheduled to play Germany in London in an exhibition game Tuesday before going to France for the Olympics. The Americans are in a pool with Belgium, Japan and Germany.

“We have work to do and we know that,” U.S. coach Cheryl Reeve said. “Sometimes it’s good, adversity, etc. I don’t think we needed a game like this to have our attention. We know how hard it is to do what we’re trying to do and we have work to do to get there.”

That work starts with getting time together on and off the court. The players had a lot of other responsibilities over All-Star weekend besides the game.

They only got to practice as a team twice before Saturday’s game. Now they’ll have some time together with a lot less distraction. That will help them improve and get ready for what matters most — capping the Olympics with another gold medal.

“It’s not time to panic. It’s time to learn and grow and figure out how we can be our best together,” Stewart said. “We have a group of very unselfish players and everybody wants to succeed here.”

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Pope Francis calls for Olympic truce for countries at war, prays for peace

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VATICAN CITY (AP) — Pope Francis on Sunday voiced his hope that the Paris Olympic and Paralympic Games will provide an opportunity for countries at war to respect an ancient Greek tradition and establish a truce for the duration of the Games.

“According to ancient tradition, may the Olympics be an opportunity to establish a truce in wars, demonstrating a sincere will for peace,” Francis said during his Angelus prayer in St. Peter’s Square.

The Pope stressed that sport also has “a great social power, capable of peacefully uniting people from different cultures.”

The opening ceremony of the 33rd Olympic Games will be held in Paris on July 26 with the participation of 205 delegations of athletes, who will parade on more than 80 boats on the Seine.

“I hope that this event can be a sign of the inclusive world we want to build and that the athletes, with their sporting testimony, may be messengers of peace and valuable models for the young,” Francis added.

The pope, as always, asked the faithful to pray for peace, recalling the ongoing conflicts around the world.

“Let us not forget the martyred Ukraine, Palestine, Israel, Myanmar, and many other countries at war. Let us not forget, war is a defeat,” he concluded.

The Canadian Press. All rights reserved.



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