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Hockey: The Real Ramifications Of The USA Victory – And Notes From The Sunday Tripleheader

Now that I’ve filed my column for tomorrow, I have time for a few other notes from today:

1. Wish you all could have been here for USA-Canada. Nothing like being inside the building of a big international game. As some of you know, I did cover the 1980 Miracle On Ice game and nothing will top that. But for the USA to beat Canada on Canadian home ice at the Olympics with at least 90% of the building rooting for Canada . . . pretty damn cool. Unless you were a Canadian player.

2. Evgeni Nabokov looked great in Russia’s victory over the Czech Republic this morning. He had to make just 23 saves but some were spectacular. One of the goals he gave up was a 5-on-3 and he was screened on the other. After the game when his teammates came out to congratulate him, a few even gave him big hugs, something I’ve never seen after a NHL game. After the game in the dreaded “mixed zone” where reporters fight to talk to players, I had to fight with all the Russian-language reporters to get just one question asked in English but this is what Nabby told me when I asked him to assess the Russian team at this point, which has won two of its three games with one overtime shootout loss (with Ily Bryzgalov in goal for that one, not Nabokov):

 “It’s too early to make any decisions, any conclusions. We’ve got to put together another good game next time. But it’s been a good start for us.”

3. At the time we spoke, Nabby didn’t know about what I consider to be the biggest bummer of the Canadian loss to the USA. Because of the convoluted way the tournament works, it very much appears that Canada will now meet Russia in a quarterfinal game. THat means one of those teams will not advance to the semifinals, which means one of them is guaranteed of not winning a medal. Canada has only itself to blame but something is still wrong with a format that will eliminate one of the best four or five teams in the round of 16.

4. Milan Michalek, the former Shark, is having a good tournament for the Czech Republic–he had a goal Sunday against Russia– and has been watching all the tournament games either in person or on television. I agree with his assessment: “It’s a short tournament and anybody can beat anybody if their goalie can be hot that day. Coming here, I thought there were four teams that could win it all. Now I think there are five or six.”

5. Yes, that hit by Ovechkin on Jagr was a crusher and a real turning point when Russia scored a few seconds later. I think Jagr still must be seeing stars. But I liked his quote about it when asked how it felt: “I don’t really care how I feel. If I get hurt, it always heals. It just doesn’t look good.” But as Michalek said: “The biggest turning point is when they scored after it.”

6. I’m not going into a lot of Canada-USA stuff because I wrote about it for my column in tomorrow morning’s paper (although I wish I’d had more time; I only had an hour to do interviews and then write it — but no whining on this bus). I’m also going to save thoughts about the four Canadian Shark players for a future column. So stay tuned to But let me just say I would not have wanted to be Marleau, Thornton, Heatley or Boyle heading out onto the streets of Vancouver on Sunday night. The whole city/country was so jacked up about this game. I envision young Canadian children crying over the defeat. Seriously.

7. I’m now watching Sweden beating Norway, 3-0, in the third period. I want to stick around and talk to Douglas Murray afterward. He’s playing about four or five shifts per period, steady as she goes. This is a big victory for his team, though, because it gives them the second seed in the tournament — although the way I figure it (this format is so complicated), Finland will also now get a bye as the fourth seed. By my reckoning, assuming this score holds up and Sweden doesn’t score three more goals to overtake the USA in a tiebreaker, the qualification round matchups for Tuesday will look like this though I’d still wait for it to be confirmed by Olympic honchos:

Czech Republic vs. Latvia (winner will play Finland in the quarterfinals)

Canada vs. Germany (winner will play Russia in the quarterfinals)

Slovakia vs. Norway (winner will play Sweden in the quarterfinals)

Switzerland vs. Belarus (winner will play USA in the quarterfinals)

If you really want to go all out and project way too far, we could be looking at a USA-Finland semifinal and a Sweden vs. Canada/Russia semifinal. Wow, now I am beginning to realize just how big Sunday’s victory was. I didn’t realize it when I was writing my column because (A) Sweden had not played Finland yet tonight and (B) I didn’t have time to really figure out all the possibilites.

And while I disdain jingoism, let me just say: Every kid in the USA who plays hockey ought to be proud tonight.

Posted on Sunday, February 21st, 2010
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Hockey: Ranking The Olympic Sharks So Far (And A Random Encounter With Buzz Aldrin)

Okay, as I promised in anticipation of a cool Sunday schedule of games including the big Canada-USA matchup (which you can read about it in my Sunday column in the Merc), here is a brief capsule of all eight Shark players’ performances so far. I’ve ranked them by their impact on the tournament so far, along with salient stats and some personal observations:

1. DANY HEATLEY (Canada) — He’s tied for the tournament points lead (4) with four other players and is tied for the goal-scoring lead (3) with Jarome Iginla of Canada and the fabulous Tore Vikingstad of Norway. Love that name. Heatley really is playing with as much intensity as anyone here. But so is the whole Shark Canadian (Sharkanucks?) contingent. Defensemen are finding it hard to stick with Heatley because of his size and strength.

2. PATRICK MARLEAU (Canada) — He’s got two goals and an assist in two games and has taken 11 shots in two games, more than anyone else in the hockey tournament except for Marian Hossa of Slovakia, who has already played in three games. From his body language, I can tell Marleau is geeked up about playing with the other great players from his country.

3. JOE PAVELSKI (USA) — Former Shark coach Ron Wilson is using Pavelski in all situations, which has surprised me some, but he’s fulfilled Wilson’s faith. Pavelski has won 19 of 28 faceoffs, second best percentage on the team. He has two assists and I think should have had another on one of the USA’s goals against Switzerland. His line, with Ryan Malone of Tampa Bay and Ryan Kesler of Vancouver, has also been the most versataile and reliable on the team.

4. DAN BOYLE (Canada) — He’s got two assists in the two games but is a plus 3, which ties him for the tournament lead in that category with 13 other players. I had a good interview with Boyle for Sunday’s column. Best quote I didn’t use but will definitely use next week if the situation is right. Boyle was saying he hasn’t seen much of the other Sharks here at the Olympic Village but added: “I know when we get back to San Jose in two weeks, there will be a lot of talking to each other about all this, especially from certain guys that have big mouths.” When I asked who that might be, Boyle laughed and said: “Dougie Murray, for one.”

5. JOE THORNTON (Canada) — Obviously, Thornton has been putting Heatley and Marleau into good scoring positions, even if the stats just show that Joe has one assist and a plus-minus number of zero over the two games. Thornton has won 14 of 23 faceoffs, the fourth best percentage among Canadian players and 15th best in the tournament. You get the feeling he’s going to have a breakout game . . . maybe against the USA?

6. EVGENI NABOKOV (Russia) — He’s only played one game, Russia’s easy 8-2 victory over Latvia. In it, he saved 18 of 20 shots against him but could have spent most of the game doing Sudoku puzzles because the Latvians didn’t press him much. After Russia’s overtime loss to Slovakia with Ilya Bryzgalov in goal, I fully expect Russia to go back to Nabby today against the Czech Republic — and I know Nabby well enough to know he’ll be upset if that doesn’t happen.

7. DOUGLAS MURRAY (Sweden) — He’s been a steady presence in Sweden’s two victories, over Germany and Belarus. Murray doesn’t have any goals or assists, but he’s stayed out of the penalty box and is averaging 12:26 of ice time per game. Sunday’s game against Finland should be a real test for the Swedes. And by the way, congratulations to former Shark Teemu Selanne for becoming the all-time Olympic points scoring leader by scoring his 37th point in Friday’s game.

8. THOMAS GREISS (Germany) — This should be a great tournament for the development of Greiss, the Sharks’ backup goalie. He started against Sweden and gave up two goals in 25 shots by one of the tournament’s top four teams. Greiss then sat for Germany’s loss to Finland but is back in net against Belarus as I write these words at the hockey arena. Midway through the second period, Belarus is leading, 2-1. Greiss allowed one goal on six shots int he first period and just gave up a bad second goal by committing too early on a shot and then being unable to slide across the crease because he was blocked by his own defenseman. A learning experience, I’m sure.

Most importantly, no one is hurt.

So. Onward to Sunday. I’ve got plenty of stuff in my notebook from media sessions with the USA and Canada teams today and would love to download them but . . . a man’s gotta get some sleep. I’m leaving the hockey arena to be back here as early as I can in the morning and . . . just so you know what it’s like at the Olympics, for no apparent reason, astronaut Buzz Aldrin just walked into the press room and is schmoozing at the table next to me. I shook his hand. Since I once played golf with Neil Armstrong (another story for another time), I have now met the first two men who walked on the moon and two-thirds of the first moon mission. Michael Collins, you’re next . . . sometime.

Enjoy the Sunday games.

Posted on Saturday, February 20th, 2010
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Vonn, Mancuso, skiing and rivalry

WHISTLER, British Columbia – If they were men, it’s doubtful the long-time rivalry between Squaw Valley’s Julia Mancuso and Colorado’s Lindsey Vonn would turn into something manufactured for roller derby. The latest rumblings: the skiers hate each other and another Nancy Kerrigan-Tanya Harding drama is about to break out.

Perhaps that’s what NBC needs to help its troublesome, West Coast, tape-delayed coverage. Never mind. Not even sure that’s going to boost the anemic coverage back home.

Mancuso and Vonn aren’t cooperating with this juicy storyline anyway. The women have raced against each other since they were 12. They’re certainly not friends but they probably wouldn’t be even when taking ski racing out of the equation.

I don’t claim to know either other than writing about them for the past eight years. But here are a few observations:

–Vonn, a Minnesota native, is regimented. It helps her stay focused on skiing like the wind. Mancuso divides her time between the Sierra Nevada and Maui – a true California free spirit. She has been known to take off free skiing between runs of races. “It’s all just fun for Jules,” sister April told me this morning.

–Vonn has had strong father figures in her life. First, her dad Alan Kildow, and now her husband Thomas Vonn. Lindsey is estranged from Kildow. Mancuso grew up without her father around because he had to serve time in prison on a drug bust. But they have been close since his release; the Mancuso family — including three daughters – is tight knit.

–Vonn likes to get along with the group, and really, beyond ski racing, doesn’t say too much about what she really is thinking. She’s polished and uncomplicated when speaking publicly. Mancuso is whip-smart and doesn’t always have patience for some of the media hype even though she wants to use her celebrity to promote projects such as Right to Play.

During the Vancouver Games the women have done nothing to stir up controversy. Mancuso has been effusive in praising her rival, saying Vonn deserves all the publicity.

April Mancuso, dressed in Christmas red long johns with “Go Jules” stitched on the back, chuckled when asked about the rivalry. Yes, she said, they laugh at the suggestion that the skiers hate each other.

Two weeks ago I mentioned to Julia that the big build up surrounding Vonn would help her in Whistler.

Mancuso laughed at that, and then said, “Hopefully I can peak at the right time.”

Posted on Saturday, February 20th, 2010
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Hockey: Is It Nabokov The Rest Of The Way For Russia?

(I also posted most of this item on the Working The Corners blog on the Mercury News sports page)

I won’t be covering another hockey game until Sunday’s big USA-Canada epic. I’m at curling today, of all places — but so is the 49ers’ Vernon Davis, the USA’s honorary curling captain. It’s a great country.
I have, however, been monitoring the hockey here as closesly as possible — one of the great things about covering the Olympics is that all of the events are on in real time in every press area. That overtime shootout victory by Slovakia over Russia late last night was riveting — better than the Canada shootout win over Switzerland in my book. Sharks’ goalie Evgeni Nabokov, of course, was not in goal for Russia. It tells me that might be the last time we see Ilya Bryzgalov during this tournament. The loss also doesn’t hurt Russia much in the points standings heading into the quarterfinals.
As for that Canada game . . . well, I would definitely say that Patrick Marleau should buy beers for Martin Brodeur and Sid Crosby. If you watched the game, you know that the Sharks line has been Canada’s most effective and that Marleau scored a goal in the Swiss game . . . but the tying Swiss goal also banked in off Marleau’s skate while he was trying to position himself defensively near the crease. It wasn’t Marleau’s fault, obviously, but with the way the Canada press is here (insane), I’m sure some would blame him. Instead, Brodeur played fabulous the rest of the way and in overtime and in the shootout and Crosby scored the clincher. I was a little surprised that Canada coach Babcock didn’t use Marleau in the three-man shootout because I think he’s pretty good at that — but it’s frustrating not to be there to ask those questions (I was at figure skating). It’s often/always hard to tell what’s clicking inside Marleau’s head but I have rarely seen him more fired up than after that victory. It’s been one of my theories that, as a Shark, he plays with more emotion against Canadian NHL teams. And not that he’s playing for the national team, I really see it. His brother, wife, kids and parents are all here.
I did have a chance to visit with Joe Thornton the other day and he’s the same old Joe, seems loose and we talked about the book he was reading (a non-fiction one about fishermen in the north sea that I’d recommended to him). But I think all the Canada guys are feeling the pressure. As Dany Heatley told me, it’s like the fans expect them to score eight goals in the first 10 minutes of every game. I really look forward to doing a lot of hockey columns next week when the quarterfinals start. And I think I’ll be doing a column for Sunday’s paper advancing Canada-USA. The interest up here is intense. The television ratings in Canada for the home team’s hockey games are three times the ratings for figure skating. I’m sure it’s just the reverse in the USA, which is how Sunday’s game winds up on MSNBC. I’d be really pissed if I were the NHL guys. They break their backs to get here and play great hockey and NBC won’t even put them on the main network.
I know some of you have had questions about why we can’t start a new string just for each Olympic day on this blog. That’d be cool with me, but it’s not within my power. THe honchos make those calls and so far, I just have access here as a commentator (Pollak probably wants it that way.)
Some other info on Canada vs. USA, for the trivia minded: The two teams have met 15 times in Olympic competition. The Canadians have won 10 times, the Americans have won twice and there have been three draws. The USA has failed to win in the last six games against Canada. The last time it happened was in 1960, believe it or not, in Squaw Valley.
Their last meeting was the 2002 Gold Medal match in Salt Lake City, which I covered. It was close for a while but Canada eventually won, 5-2. Brodeur was also the goalie in that game.
I’ll try to weigh in each day on hockey, if possible. Tomorrow, my tentative plan is to give you a quick rundown/analysis of each Shark’s performance at the Games so far.

Posted on Friday, February 19th, 2010
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Plushenko Wins Sore Loser Medal

There are bound to be other candidates, but right now, I would have to say that Evgeni Plushenko, the Russian figure skater, wins the honor of sorest loser of the Vancouver Games.

After finishing second Thursday night to Evan Lysacek in the men’s competition, Plushenko did not exactly wear his silver medal well.
First, he kept the press waiting more than an hour after the competition, blowing the deadlines of even West Coast writers. (I couldn’t get his quotes into my column.)
Then, when he did show up, he basically dissed gold medalist Lysacek and his achievement, as well as the judges who scored the competition.

Plushenko, the defending Olympic champ, had led the competition entering Thursday’s free skate. But he left one scheduled jump out of his routine and wobbled one a couple of his landings. This, plus Lysacek’s dazzling array of spins, cost Plushenko the gold and gave Lycacek his first Olympic podium finish — and the first American gold medal since Brian Boitano’s in 1988.

Let’s just say that Plushenko was not gracious when he was asked his feelings about the whole thing.

“I was positive I won,” he said through an interpreter. “I suppose Evan needs a medal more than I do. Maybe it’s because I already have one.”

And then he held his breath and turned blue.

No, just kidding. But for one night, I was proud that my country was represented by a far classier guy. Lysacek said that Plushenko had “inspired him” as a competitor and congratulated him on his performance.

Posted on Thursday, February 18th, 2010
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USA Hockey: The Inside Stuff

I also posted this on the Working The Corners blog, but figured it wouldn’t hurt to duplicate here:

Hey, WTC citizens — Sorry about the issues with the earlier blog address I gave you . . .where the Merc’s Olympic reporters were supposed to post extra stuff from our coverage. As has been mentioned, there have been a lot of glitches in the blog situation the last few days and that blog was having its issue. So I decided to come here instead with any hockey stuff I pick up — assuming that’s okay with you guys. If you shout me down, I’ll go back inside my Olympic bubble.

Maybe I should first let you in on our hockey coverage plans: Obviously, El Almond and I are here covering a lot of events — but our intention is to have one of us at every USA hockey game and as many of the Canadian games as possible. And then, next week when it goes into the medal round, we want to cover every quarterfinal game as well as the semifinals and finals.

You might have seen my column on the USA team the other day after its opening victory over Switzerland — or maybe not. My ego isn’t big enough to believe everyone reads every word I write. But basically, I said that the USA looks better than I expected and that the young players–the Americans have the youngest roster here — bring a special energy onto the ice. That’s not happening so much today because right now, the USA leads Norway by just 3-1 after the second period. Almond is covering the game as I journey to the men’s figure skating finals across town. But I’ve been monitoring it on television. The Americans are passing up too many shots, in my opinion. Joe Pavelski is doing hard work in front of the net and has had a few good looks . . . I think the other players need to follow his example.

Two other things I thought you guys might want to know: Ron Wilson, the former Shark coach many fans loved to hate (or hated to love, more accurately) seems to think that one factor (if a minor one) in the tournament will be how smoothly the NHL players on all the teams adjust to international rules. As you can see, there is no trapezoid area behind the goalie, which should give an advantage to a great puck-handling ‘tender like Canada’s Martin Brodeur. There’s also no standing in the crease — if a ref catches someone doing it, the puck comes out of the zone for a faceoff. Also, if your helmet falls off, it’s a penalty if you keep skating and touch the puck. And the no-touch icing, of course. Oh, yes. And one more: A player who gets into a fight will not just be tossed out of the game, he will also have to sit out the following game. (I don’t expect this rule to even come up.)

It also seems to me that so far, Wilson is being more patient with his line combinations than Mike Babcock was with Canada. John Tortorella, one of the USA assistants, told me: “You don’t want have a knee-jerk reaction because you need to get out of their way and let them play out a little bit. But it’s a fine line in terms of waiting too long to make a move, also.” I’ve been remembering that quote while watching the USA’s top line fail to really light up the scoreboard. By contrast, Babcock shook up his top line quickly when Canada failed to score in the first period against Norway and moved up Jarome Iginla onto the line with Sid Crosby.

Finally, figured you Shark-ists would love this note: I made contact with Pavelski’s parents before the Switzerland game. THey were all sitting halfway up in the lower bowl, behind one goal, wearing USA Pavelski jerseys. Joe’s wife, mom and dad, mother-in-law, father-in-law, grandma, aunt and sister are all here and plan to stay through the weekend. And, yes, they definitely are from Wisconsin. Half an hour before the noon faceoff, I am happy to report that Joe’s mom and dad were both enjoying a beer. (I was jealous.) Joe’s dad, a self-employed painter, declared: “The Molson is pretty good–almost as good as Point Beer back home.”

If you guys have questions you’d like me to answer about the Olympic hockey tournament, send them along to me at . I don’t always have time to read all the comments on WTC but am happy to keep the Mercury News part of it going while Pollak is on Olympic break

Posted on Thursday, February 18th, 2010
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Olympic Hockey in Canada

By Elliott Almond

VANCOUVER, British Columbia — My new buddies at Queen’s Park Arena in New Westminster, B.C., didn’t really prepare me for this: It doesn’t get much more exciting than watching an Olympic hockey match in Canada.

I’m at the U.S.-Norway game and after one period I can feel the intensity of the crowd. No, the United States and Norway don’t have a tradition of hockey clashes. No matter. Folks in the stands absolutely on fire.

Reminds you of the Shark Tank during the NHL playoffs — before the Sharks tank.

Posted on Thursday, February 18th, 2010
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Johnny Weir and Olympics figure skating

By Elliott Almond

VACNCOUVER, British Columbia – When it comes to men’s figure skating, it might as well be fun. We have Johnny Weir to thank for that.

Weir enters the free skate tonight too far behind to contend for a medal at Pacific Coliseum. Even he admits it.

“When I came in here a medal was pretty far-fetched for me,” he said. “I haven’t been a contender for a couple years now. I was left out of that 10. I have no problem with that. I accept that. I understand it. It’s.”

Weir, whose milky face and nimble body makes him a candidate to replace Johnny Depp as Edward Sissorhands, isn’t one to worry about judging.

“I do my triple flip on the wrong edge,” he said. “I’ve worked on it but I’m old. We try to hide it on the ice from the judges but it’s not hard to see. As long as it is pretty I don’t really care. And as long as I’m not on my ass afterward.”

Asked about one competitor’s Farmer John outfit of overalls, Weir said, “I thought it was very fashion forward and a very big risk –even riskier than a man with cleavage and ruffles.” He then looked down at his cleavage and ruffles.

As far as tonight’s program, the top three will make it interesting, starting with the comeback of defending gold medalist Evgeni Plushenko, who had an Olympic record 90.85 points. American Evan Lysacek is second and Japan’s Daisuke Takahashi is third with scores so close that it is all but a three-way tie.

Lysacek will skate first among the final six skaters in the long program, a distinct disadvantage. Plushenko got the advantageous final spot in the random draw. Takahashi skates third from the end, also a good position.

Plushenko, like Weir, speaks his mind, saying that only real men do quadruple jumps. Neither Lysacek nor Takahashi try the tough rotation. The Russian skater demanded that the men do more difficult combinations. He does so catch him if you can.

When Plushenko finished Tuesday to Spanish music, he drew an imaginary sword, kissed it and returned it to its sheath – not that the showmanship gave him extra points from the judges.

Posted on Thursday, February 18th, 2010
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Husband of U.S. mogul skier detained

WEST VANCOUVER, British Columbia — This story seemed to fail to get much attention, but Mike Hormell, husband of U.S. moguls skier Michelle Roark, was detained at Cypress Mountain while trying to get to the training area last weekend. Hormell usually is with his wife in training but access is limited at the Olympics.

One source said Hormell had tried to sneak through the second-growth forest to get to the moguls’ training area. Roark did not confirm that. She defended her husband and said he filed appropirate paperwork to get clearance. Olympic officials said they did not receive any documents.

Roark asked the U.S. Olympic Committee and U.S. Ski and Snowboard Association to help but neither would intercede.

Posted on Monday, February 15th, 2010
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Women ski jumpers and the Olympics

WEST VANCOUVER, British Columbia –Of all the events being contested at the 2010 Winter Olympics, one you won’t see is women’s ski jumping.

The women have asked and asked and had the door slammed in their faces for years. The basic reason for rejection is this: the sport isn’t competitive enough yet to be considered worthy of the Olympics.

And women’s hockey — as much as I enjoy it — is?

Two recent scores from the Vancouver Games: Canada 18, Slovakia ; United States 12, China 1. Basically, women’s hockey has four good teams — Canada, United States, Sweden and Finland. And when all is said and done, the gold medal at the Olympics and world championships comes down to Canada and the Americans. So much for spreading the sport to the world after three Olympics.

Women jumpers have petitioned to become part of every Winter Olympics since Nagano in 1998, but have been rejected by the International Olympic Committee — the same group that claims to foster gender equity. In the past couple years Canadian women have forced the issue, taking their complaint as far as they could legally without getting a positive decision.

Ski jumping and the Nordic combined, which is a mix of cross-country skiing and ski jumping, are the only Olympic winter sports that are male only. The IOC reasons the sport is too young, lacking a history of world championships and athletes participating from many countries.

This bothers the male Olympians, too.

“It’s kind of a bull issue they can’t jump where they are accepted in almost all other sports,” said Alpine skier Andrew Weibrecht of Lake Placid. “Lindsey Van and I went to high school and I feel bad for her not to get the opportunities.”

Van, a world champion, was part of the suit to try to get the sport accepted at the Vancouver Games.

The IOC should consider some simple math to promote women’s sports. It’s far easier to groom one competitive ski jumper than an entire hockey team. Given the chance, women’s ski jumping would quickly live up to Olympic standards.

It seemed PC Canada would have been the perfect place to introduce the women jumpers into the Olympic family. It’s a lost opportunity. Perhaps it will change in Sochi, Russia in four years.

But when it comes to the power elite of the IOC, you can’t count on members doing what is right.

Posted on Monday, February 15th, 2010
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