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Russian Track Athletes Banned from Olympics



Tempting as it may be to view the Olympic ban slapped on Russia’s track and field federation as a watershed moment in the battle against cheaters, experts warn it’s not providential for anyone – in Canada or elsewhere – to feel too smug about it.

There is a mountain of evidence suggesting Russia developed a well-organized, state-sponsored system to give its athletes a pharmacological edge.

Athletics-IAAF votes unanimously to keep Russia banned from Rio Olympics (Reuters)

In response, the International Amateur Athletic Federation board has voted unanimously to disqualify the country’s runners, throwers and jumpers from the Rio Games next month.

But the scandal’s unravelling has also laid bare the shortcomings of what Paul Melia, the head of the anti-doping watchdog Canadian Centre for Ethics in Sport, terms “the superstructure of the worldwide fight against doping.”

It is an edifice bound together by conflicts of interest, competing imperatives and cronyism.

The New York Times reported this week the Montreal-based World Anti-Doping Agency, which receives a sizable injection of funds from the federal and Quebec governments each year, had an inkling of what Russia was up to as far back as 2008 and did essentially nothing to follow up on information provided by multiple tipsters.

It also detailed the proximity and interdependence among WADA officials, the International Olympic Committee and the major sporting federations.

It wasn’t until a German television documentary last fall about Russian doping that WADA appointed an independent committee to consider the allegations against Russia.

The group was led by founding WADA president Richard Pound, a former Canadian Olympian, and issued a pair of scathing reports last November and January.

“They found Russia non-compliant, but there was no immediate consequence, it was left to the IAAF. So what kind of system is that? Shouldn’t non-compliance automatically mean no Games?” said Melia, whose agency holds a seat on WADA’s legal committee.

Musing aloud about WADA’s Canadian address and the fact various levels of government combine to make seven-figure annual contributions for the headquarters and the organization’s $28-million (U.S.) operating budget, Melia said “in my mind I think, wouldn’t one want to carry out an independent investigation into who knew what, when?”

He also said WADA’s governance structure is “not independent” and “hopelessly conflicted.”

The IOC is a major WADA funder; half of the 38-member board has direct links to either the IOC or an international federation, several government representatives also have deep Olympic ties.

Pound said the organization was always intended to have regulatory bite but said “it’s taken a while to get there” because of pushback from various international sporting federations.

“We need to get back into the compliance business instead of the cheerleading business,” said Pound, who was a longtime member of the IOC executive (he sits on the WADA board).

A message seeking comment from officials at the agency, which hailed the IAAF decision in a prepared statement, was not returned.

The vagaries of amateur sport mean the decision to ban all Russian track athletes likely isn’t final just yet; several are expected to appeal to the Court of Arbitration for Sport – whose head also is involved in the IOC – and one is threatening to petition the European Court for Human Rights.

Pound, a lawyer, expressed strong doubts they will be successful.

Rob Guy, chief executive officer of Athletics Canada, said “I feel sorry for the clean athletes” but exemptions risk diluting the message; proving innocence is also a high bar, he said, “not testing positive is not the same thing as being clean.”

Either way, the track and field competition in Rio risks taking on a new look.

Former Canadian Olympic track coach Les Gramantik said a host of countries stand to benefit.

“We’ve seen some of the Russian heptathletes and decathletes and their suspension could help us,” Gramantik said. “Overall, the reaction has been good and it’s a very progressive step to cleaning up our sport. The only concern I have is how it affects the athletes who are clean … Think about it: what if in 1992 we were told we could not send our track and field team to Barcelona because of Ben Johnson.”

Johnson was banned for life by the IOC after testing positive for steroids at the 1988 Olympics in Seoul.

It was perhaps the first truly global doping scandal. Bigger have followed.

WADA has recently become more aggressive in conducting in-house probes – a new head of intelligence was appointed Thursday.

And another incriminatory report was released this week detailing how Russian officials have obstructed 736 drug tests since last November.

Investigators are also reportedly looking into allegations involving China and others.

“It’s not just an athletics thing or a Russia thing. Hopefully it’s a big step in cleaning up international high-performance sport, but this is not the end game,” said Guy of Athletics Canada, which as an IAAF member has pushed for taking a hard line against Russia.

Unfortunately, international sporting bodies are not famous for doing the right thing.

Until last year the IAAF was run by a man who now faces charges of soliciting bribes to cover up positive drug tests. The new head, England’s Sebastian Coe, recently saw his hand-picked adjutant suspended for allegedly accepting improper payments.

Melia confessed to harbouring doubts the IAAF would suspend a major country from a showcase event, and is encouraged by the fact it did.

“The value of the asset of sport rests very much on its integrity,” he said.

But in a sense, Russia is low-hanging fruit – many countries couldn’t afford to support a centralized system on that scale even if they wanted to.

Dopers tend to act on their own initiative, helped by coaches and well-heeled enablers.

It’s an insurgency, not a war, and difficult challenges await WADA, the IOC and the international sporting bodies.

The answer to meeting them, Melia said, mainly lies in unrelenting vigilance and the governance reforms that make it possible.

Speaking of vigilance, WADA recently found track powerhouse Kenya, which has seen a rash of positive doping tests in the past half-decade, “non-compliant.”

It also gave the national anti-doping regulator in Ethiopia, another global athletics power, a zero rating and ordered mass testing.

Athletes from both countries are expected to compete in Rio.

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Up and Coming Sports Stars to Look Out for in 2020



Every year, a raft of exciting new players come onto the scene across all of the major US sports. With the MLS season getting underway and the NFL and MLB drafts not too far away, now is a great time to look at the young sports stars that could have a very bright future ahead of them, and the ones that are already proving they are destined for greatness.

Theo Bair (MLS)

This MLS season is looking like it could be one of the best yet, with David Beckham’s Inter Miami team adding some extra dazzle to the league. Whilst Beckham might be able to attract a lot of new players to his MLS team, there are a lot of young stars on their way through such as Theo Bair at Vancouver Whitecaps. Bair has already made an impact on the first team and after impressing at under-20 and under-23 level for the national team, he has made two appearances for the senior team, well before his 21st birthday. This year could see Bair make a real name for himself in the MLS.

Source: Pixabay

Vladimir Guerrero Jr. (MLB)

Montreal-born Vladimir Guerrero Jr has one MLB season under his belt but it looks like the best is still yet to come from him at the Blue Jays. He was heavily backed to take the league by storm but he failed to live up to the hype that surrounded him. Without the pressure of being the top-ranked prospect, this season could see Guerrero play with some weight lifted off his shoulders. He has been working very hard on his fitness over the offseason, something that his manager Montoyo has been quick to comment upon.

Baseball by andrewmalone, on Flickr

Baseball” (CC BY 2.0) by andrewmalone

Connor McDavid (NHL)

McDavid has already established him as a top hockey player but at 23, he has the potential to go on to do so much more. The player was born in Ontario and was the first overall draft pick, showing how much expectation was already on him at that stage but he has gone on to prove that he is one of the best players in the NHL. McDavid could go on to be one the NHL’s best-ever hockey players and this season could be the year that he shows the world, not just the NHL.

Chuba Hubbard (College Football)

The Oklahoma State Cowboys running back has been making the headlines for several years now. He continues to improve and grab more attention for his impressive stats and performances. He was close to being a sprinter and nearly made the Canadian Olympic team before switching over to football. He is passing up the 2020 NFL draft to play his senior season at Cowboys. He should give them a good chance of winning the College Football Championship, though they’re trailing at the seventh spot in the latest American football odds at +2400.00, with Clemson as the current betting favorites.

2020 will definitely be a very exciting time with some of these young stars looking to breakthrough in their respective sports and show the world what they are capable of.

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Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby – and looking to break the Curse of Apollo



Bob Baffert is back at the Kentucky Derby with early favourite Justify after watching the race from his sofa in Southern California last year.

The Hall of Fame trainer’s ability to produce Derby contenders year after year is an enviable feat and why his absence a year ago stood out. It was just his second since 2009 and occurred because his lone candidate got hurt.

Baffert will saddle Justify and 30-to-1 shot Solomini in Saturday’s Derby.

Justify is one of the greenest colts Baffert has brought to Churchill Downs. He’s won all three of his starts by a combined 19 lengths. If Justify wins, he’d be the first to do so since Apollo in 1882 without racing as a two-year-old.

“The thing about the Kentucky Derby, you have to have the right horse. It just happens. You can’t force it,” Baffert said. “All of a sudden, you have good horses and you’re there. So I’ve been really fortunate to have some really good horses.”

Baffert’s four victories are tied for second-most in Derby history. He’s finished second three times, too, including in 2012 with Bodemeister, also the last time he had two starters in the same year.

Like Justify, Bodemeister didn’t race as a two-year-old. He set a blistering pace and led the Derby until the final 150 yards when I’ll Have Another overtook him to win by 1 1/2 lengths.

Magnum Moon, the 6-to-1 third choice, also is unbeaten and didn’t run as a two-year-old.

“It’s going to happen,” Baffert said, referring to the curse being broken. “Whether it happens this year or whatever, but it will happen because Bodemeister almost got away with it. But I don’t really worry about that.”

Baffert almost had a third starter this year until McKinzie developed a hind-end issue that knocked him off the Derby trail.

“When McKinzie got hurt, I wanted to throw up,” he said. “I really think McKinzie would probably be second choice here. We’d really have a 1-2 here.”

Justify cleared the biggest pre-Derby hurdle by drawing the No. 7 post. Jockey Mike Smith can use the colt’s early speed to position him well for the long run to the chaotic first turn. Solomini ended up in the No. 17 post; no horse has ever won from there.

Baffert turned 65 in January, making him eligible for Medicare and retirement at most other jobs. However, he entertains no such thoughts.

“I work hard at it. I just don’t give up,” the white-haired trainer said. “I’m constantly meeting people. They’re sending me horses. If you don’t have success, you’re not going to get those opportunities.”

After a successful run in the quarter horse ranks, Baffert switched to thoroughbreds. He started with one horse.

“After 25 years, I’m finally getting horses that I don’t have to buy,” he said. “The big guys are sending me horses.”

None was bigger than American Pharoah in 2015. The colt swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont to become racing’s first Triple Crown winner in 37 years.

Baffert has compared Justify to American Pharoah, citing the colt’s imposing physical presence and big stride. Still, Justify has yet to encounter the kind of traffic the Derby’s 20-horse stampede creates and the talent as he’ll run against on Saturday.

“I’d rather have a really talented horse than one who’s seasoned and just on par with the rest of them,” Baffert said.

Early on, Baffert knew Justify had the goods.

“The first time I worked him at Santa Anita, I knew he was a really good horse,” he said. “The track was really deep that morning, and he went around there effortlessly. His first race, he ran incredibly and showed how special he was.”

That kind of intuition is what separates Baffert from his rivals, fellow Hall of Famer trainer D. Wayne Lukas said.

“Bob’s got a great feel for it,” he said.

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Matthews ready to return to Maple Leafs lineup after missing a month



NASHVILLE — The hurtin’ tune that Auston Matthews has been singing for the past four weeks finally can be put in the remainder bin in Music City.

The Maple Leafs’ top centre on Wednesday declared himself set to return to the lineup after recovering from a right shoulder injury.

Wonderful timing, of course, considering the Leafs will take on the No. 1 club in the National Hockey League, the Nashville Predators, on Thursday night.

“In my mind, I think I’m ready to go and taking it as I’m getting ready to play (Thursday),” Matthews said after resuming his normal role, between William Nylander and Zach Hyman, during practice at Bridgestone Arena.

“It felt good, nice to get in all the reps and everything. (Wednesday) was a good step forward in that process, going through the line rushes.”

It seemed probable that the Leafs also will have defenceman Nikita Zaitsev, who missed the past five games as he recovered from an illness, against Nashville. Zaitsev was paired with Jake Gardiner, his regular partner, at practice.

For Matthews, it has been 10 games as a spectator with his latest injury, his third of the 2017-18 regular season after he missed four games in November with a back issue and then sat for six in December because of a concussion.

Thursday will mark four weeks since Matthews was hurt when he was sandwiched by the New York Islanders’ Cal Clutterbuck and Adam Pelech in a game at the Air Canada Centre.

A major bonus for Matthews in his recovery has been the fact he has been able to skate though much of his recuperation. That was not the case when he was out with his previous two injuries.

It’s worth noting that Matthews scored two goals versus the Montreal Canadiens upon returning on Nov. 18 from his back injury; in his first two games upon coming back from a concussion, he scored a goal in each.

Mike Babcock said a final decision on the participation of Matthews and Zaitsev against the Predators would be made on Thursday morning, but the Leafs coach was talking as though it would be a rubber stamp.

“This is going to be the best opportunity for (Matthews) because he has been able to skate and compete,” Babcock said. “The other times he was not able to do anything.

“To get him back … it’s still going to be going way faster than he has been practising, so there is going to be an adjustment period, but he’s a good player and he will figure it out.”

Defenceman Morgan Rielly didn’t think Matthews will take long to find his footing. Rielly missed six games in late January/early February with an arm injury, so knows what Matthews could be feeling.

“You’re nervous and you just want to get back into it,” Rielly said. “You play your first shift a bit hesitant, but after that it’s important you get back to yourself.

“It’s never easy, but Auston is one of those guys that I will imagine it won’t take long for him to get back into a rhythm.”

And there’s the trickle-down effect through the forward lines with Matthews in uniform.

“Guys are used to playing with certain players and when everyone is healthy, I think you get better chemistry throughout the entire lineup,” centre Nazem Kadri said. “Certain guys don’t have to play with different guys constantly and it’s just more of a set group, so I think it’s going to help us.”

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