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Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Olympians Prepare For Beijing's Bad Air

by Howard Berkes

Beijing Pollution Road
Guang Niu

Smog shrouded a road to an Olympic venue in Beijing, China, on July 27, 2008. Pollution levels in Beijing topped the scale that day, just 12 days before the Olympics. Getty Images

American triathlete Jarrod Shoemaker already knows what it is like to try to compete in a demanding endurance sport while breathing some of the world's worst air.

Shoemaker swam, biked and ran the Olympic triathlon course in Beijing for both training and competition in each of the last three years. The smog was especially difficult in the last two years, he says.

"You can really feel the particulate stuff getting into your lungs," Shoemaker says. "After the race, when we tried to talk or laugh or cough, it was pretty tough. You could feel it in your lungs. There was a burning."

Shoemaker says it was even challenging to simply stand on the sidelines while his teammates raced in the women's event.

"Trying to cheer was almost impossible, because we just couldn't take deep breaths," he says.

Most Athletes Not Affected

The Medical Commission of the International Olympic Committee says most athletes will not have trouble with Beijing's bad air, with the exception of endurance athletes like Shoemaker. His event requires almost two hours of intense physical strain.

"There may be some risk for outdoor events that include minimum one-hour continuous physical efforts at high level," the IOC commission reported in March.

That includes sports such as the triathlon, road cycling, mountain biking, race walking, and the swimming and running marathons.

"It's going to be the toughest on those athletes, because they're going to be out there breathing hard for the longest amount of time," says Dr. Bob Sallis, a sports medicine physician and past president of the American College of Sports Medicine.

"It's going to have its biggest effect on those with an underlying lung disease, like asthma, or those who have allergic rhinitis that would be triggered by the smoggy air," Sallis says. "Certainly, those [athletes] are going to be at a disadvantage. And that's just going to be a fact of life."

Triathlete Julie Ertel has both asthma and allergies, "so I'm just trying to take inventory of when that gets to be bad and when that is fairly good," she says. "I've tried my different asthma medicines and my different allergy medicines, and I'm trying to find the perfect combination that helps me breathe the best."

That is a tricky calculation, because some of those medications could contain performance-enhancing substances banned by the IOC. Asthmatic athletes must apply for waivers for the medicines they need so they don't run afoul of anti-doping rules.

Working To Improve Air Quality

Chinese authorities are working very hard to make sure air quality is acceptable during the Olympics. They spent $10 billion on pollution controls since Beijing was named Olympics host in 2001, according to Jeff Ruffolo, a media consultant for the Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games.

"I think scientifically we've done everything possible and will continue up until games time and through games time to make it the best possible for athletes and visitors," Ruffolo says.

Beijing Organizing Committee spokesman Sun Weide says officials have taken drastic measures, such as relocating factories and restricting the number of vehicles on the roads to clear the air.

"We are confident that because of those extra measures, the air quality will be good for the athletes during the games time," Sun says.

Some anti-pollution measures were invoked in recent weeks, and Ruffolo says the effects were immediate. Two days after some of the strictest measures were enforced, Ruffolo reported "two days of rather impressive blue sky. ... It's been beautiful outside, and you just take it one day at a time."

Blue skies are not common in Beijing, so we asked NPR Beijing Correspondent Anthony Kuhn to take a look for himself.

"There has definitely been an improvement in the air quality," Kuhn says, but he noted that "blue sky" is a relative term in Beijing.

"The Beijing government calls days here with good air quality 'blue sky days,' " Kuhn says. "Sometimes it's hard to tell. Looking at the sky today, there's only a suggestion of blue peeking through the haze and the clouds."

Minimizing The Smog's Impact

The organizing committee and the IOC are monitoring air quality constantly. They have contingency plans for delaying endurance events if air quality isn't acceptable when competition is scheduled.

Athletes and coaches have been trying to figure out how to minimize the smog's impact on performance. Some teams are limiting exposure in advance of competition by avoiding Beijing and training elsewhere. U.S. athletes have been offered breathing masks that filter out some particulates. The masks are not intended for competition. They could actually hinder performance as much as bad air. Athletes would wear them outside of competition and training, again to minimize exposure.

"The benefits [of the masks] are as much psychological as they are physiological," says Darryl Seibel, spokesman for the U.S. Olympic Committee. "Whether or not these devices are necessary is something we won't know until we're actually in Beijing at the games. We're optimistic that the air will be of a suitable standard, [but] we are prepared in the event that we encounter conditions that are somewhat less than ideal."

"I think of [pollution] as one of many factors that I need to deal with during the race," says Philip Dunn, who will compete in the 50-km race walk, the longest track and field event in the Olympics. He plans to avoid Beijing before his event, except briefly for the opening ceremonies. But, he says, there isn't much else he can do.

"Most of my planning is going to be focused on simply getting used to the time zone [change and] getting used to the heat and the humidity," Dunn says. "Those are things I feel I have better control over."

In fact, some endurance athletes may use cooling vests before competition so they start their events refreshed. Proper nutrition and hydration can also help combat the effects of Beijing's stifling humidity and blistering heat. But there are no magic bullets for smog, except rain, which temporarily clears the air. Chinese officials have an extensive cloud seeding program under way to try to induce rain.

Dunn actually sees a potential advantage in the polluted air.

"I think of it as an equalizer," he says. "I think a lot of the athletes may be physically or psychologically affected more than I would be, and I tend to do better in races where the conditions are tougher."

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IOC to probe apparent Internet censorship

By Nick Mulvenney

BEIJING (Reuters) - The International Olympic Committee (IOC) will investigate apparent censorship of the Internet service provided for media covering the Beijing Olympics, press chief Kevan Gosper said on Tuesday.

China, which has promised media the same freedom to report on the Games as they enjoyed at previous Olympics, loosened its regulations governing foreign media in January last year.

Despite these new regulations, which are scheduled to expire in October, foreign media in China have complained of continuing harassment by officials and Human Rights Watch released a report earlier this month saying China was not living up to its pledges.

Attempts to use the Internet network at the Main Press Centre to access the website of Amnesty International, which released a report on Monday slamming China for failing to honor its Olympic human rights pledges, proved fruitless on Tuesday.

Gosper said the IOC would look into anything that interfered with reporters doing their jobs in reporting the Games.

"All of these things are a concern and we'll investigate them but our preoccupation is that the media are able to report on the Games as they did in previous Games," he told Reuters.

"Where it's not happening, we'll take the matter up with BOCOG and the authorities immediately," he said, referring to the Beijing Olympic organizers."

Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao said media should be able to access the Internet as usual but he also conceded that sites related to Falun Gong, the spiritual movement China considers a cult, would be blocked.

"As to sites related to Falun Gong, I think you know that Falun Gong is a cult that has been banned according to law, and we will adhere to our position," Liu told a news conference.

He suggested that difficulties accessing certain websites could be the fault of the sites themselves.

"There are some problems with a lot of websites themselves that makes it not easy to view them in China," Liu said.

"Our attitude is to ensure that foreign journalists have regular access to information in China during the Olympic Games."

The Games officially open on August 8 but the Athletes' and Media Villages are up and running and the Main Press Centre and International Broadcast Centre are already teeming with some of the more than 20,000 media accredited to cover the event.

"As I've said before, this is a country that does have censorship within its media, but we've been guaranteed free access, open media activity for media reporting on the Olympic Games at Games time," Gosper said. "We are now in Games time."

Gosper also said that there had been complaints that the Internet service provided for media was too slow.

"We're looking into that and we've tracked that information into BOCOG immediately because free access to the Internet also means normal speed," he said.

But Gosper, making his first tour of the press centre since his arrival from Australia, said he was pleased with how things looked with just 10 days to go.

"The build-up is always nervous but so far, so good."

(Additional reporting by Lindsay Beck, Editing by Nick Macfie)

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Internet sites still blocked for Olympic reporters

Foreign journalists use Internet services provided at the Main Press Center at the Olympic Green in Beijing, Tuesday, July 29, 2008. After months of promising the Internet will be uncensored for journalists during the Beijing Olympics, the IOC delivered a stark clarification on Tuesday, many Internet sites will be blocked under controls applied by China's communist government. The blocked Internet is the latest broken promise on press freedom at the Beijing Olympics, which China's authoritarian government is hoping will show off an open, modern country and the rising political and economic power of the 21st century. (AP Photo/Oded Balilty)

By Stephen Wade

BEIJING—Olympic organizers are backtracking on another promise about coverage of the Beijing Games, keeping in place blocks on Internet sites in the Main Press Center and venues where reporters will work.

The blocked sites will make it difficult for journalists to retrieve information, particularly on political and human rights stories the government dislikes. On Tuesday, sites such as Amnesty International or any search for a site with Tibet in the address could not be opened at the Main Press Center, which will house about 5,000 print journalists when the games open Aug. 8.

"This type of censorship would have been unthinkable in Athens, but China seems to have more formalities," said Mihai Mironica, a journalist with ProTV in Romania. "If journalists cannot fully access the Internet here, it will definitely be a problem."

The censored Internet is the latest broken promise on press freedoms. In bidding for the games seven years ago, Chinese officials said the media would have "complete freedom to report." And in April, Hein Verbruggen and Kevan Gosper -- senior IOC members overseeing the games -- said they'd received assurances from Chinese officials that Internet censorship would be lifted for journalists during the games.

China routinely blocks Internet access to its own citizens.

Gosper, however, issued a clarification Tuesday. He said the open Internet extended only to sites that related to "Olympic competitions."

"My preoccupation and responsibility is to ensure that the games competitions are reported openly to the world," Gosper said.

"The regulatory changes we negotiated with BOCOG and which required Chinese legislative changes were to do with reporting on the games," Gosper added, using the acronym for the Olympic organizers. "This didn't necessarily extend to free access and reporting on everything that relates to China."

Journalists trying to use the Internet on Tuesday expressed frustration, and some also complained about slow speeds. Several said it might be an intentional ploy to discourage use.

IOC officials have said the Internet would be operational by "games time," which began Sunday when the Olympic Village opened.

In a related event, Amnesty International released a report Tuesday accusing China of failing to improve its human rights record ahead of the Olympics.

The group said that in the last year, thousands of petitioners, reformists and others were arrested as part of a government campaign to "clean up" Beijing before the Olympics. It said many have been sentenced to manual labor without trial.

Beijing organizers have been backtracking on the freedom to report.

Rights holders such as NBC, which has paid about $900 million to broadcast the games, and non-rights holders have faced roadblocks, red tape and changing rules as they prepare to cover unexpected events away from the venues.

Broadcasters have complained about having permits rescinded, being forced to give notice a month ahead of time about the location of satellite trucks, and facing harassment from bureaucrats and police about renting office space or getting parking permits for their vehicles.

Earlier this month, broadcasters tried again to get Olympic organizers to lift restrictions on live broadcasts from Tiananmen Square. Alex Gilady, a senior IOC member and a senior vice president of NBC Sports, has pushed for more live time from the iconic venue -- China is offering six hours daily, and no interviews. Others are pressing to lift the ban on live interviews.

"Don't push the issue," responded organizing committee executive vice president Wang Wei, according to an official who attended the meeting. It was Wang who led Beijing's 2001 bid, and who said after winning: "We will give the media complete freedom to report when they come to China."

NBC is promising to air 3,600 hours of coverage, and its owner, General Electric, is one of 12 top sponsors of the IOC. Some top sponsors have reportedly paid as much as $200 million.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Dick Ebersol, chairman of NBC Universal Sports, said he would like to see more "openness" from Chinese officials. But he seemed to play down the news value of the Olympics. He said NBC was ready to cover stories as they come up, but "we're not going to cavalierly ... blow out sporting events to show news."

Olympic historian David Wallechinsky has criticized the IOC for giving the games to China. He's visited the country more than a half-dozen times in 30 years, and said the IOC and its sponsors were distracted by China's booming economy.

"There is so much money being made that the IOC has just turned a blind eye," Wallechinsky said. "The IOC wanted to believe it was all going to go well, and they weren't there when they should have been. You know, the Communist Party wants to control everything."

The IOC has maintained the Olympics are a sports event, and it should not intervene in politics. However, others have faulted the Swiss-based body for failing to hold China to promises made seven years ago when it won the bid.

"It is truly sad to see the IOC fail in this regard," said Vincent Brossell, a a spokesman for Paris-based press rights group Reporters Without Borders.

Rioting in Tibet four months ago, which sparked protests on international legs of the torch relay, was followed by the mobilization of an army of security personnel in Beijing -- 110,000 police, riot squads and special forces, augmented by more than 300,000 Olympic volunteers and neighborhood watch members.

Cuban reporter Joel Garcia Leon, with the magazine Trabajadores, said he expected the censorship. But he was overwhelmed by other red tape.

"I'm surprised how tightly controlled and complicated everything is here," he said. "To get a phone number from China Mobile, I have to give them a copy of my passport and my mother's maiden name. This seems quite excessive and abnormal."

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Man, 66, records 2 holes-in-one in same round

GAYLORD, Mich. - For somebody who'd been playing golf 50 years and never had a hole-in-one, Bob Hickey got the hang of it quickly. The 66-year-old Grayling man used a 7-iron to card his first-ever ace Thursday on the 167-yard 10th hole at Marsh Ridge in Gaylord. Then Hickey used an 8-iron to ace the 147-yard 17th hole.

According to a 2000 Golf Digest article cited by the Traverse City Record-Eagle, the odds of one player making two holes-in-one during the same round are 67 million to 1.

Hickey, who finished at 2-over-par 74, says he'd made two eagles but never came close to a hole-in-one before Thursday. The long-haul trucker says he thinks he benefited from "just pure luck."

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NFL gives Internet a butt-pat, offers live streaming games

By Jacqui Cheng

Webcasting has officially made its way to the beer-and-football mainstream thanks to the National Football League, which has announced plans to stream live broadcasts of Sunday night football games this fall. These streams will be the first time the NFL's content is made widely available online, and the news means that the patented Madden "Boom!" will soon be coming to a laptop near you.

Both the NFL and its broadcast partner, NBC, will provide sites dedicated to the webcasts. In addition to the live TV feed that features commentary from Al Michaels and John Madden, both sites will feature a variety of extra content. These include highlight clips, views from multiple cameras, live statistics, and blog content. True fanatics may find the site worth visiting even if they have access to the TV broadcast.

The move is surprisingly forward-looking, given the NFL's historic anti-online stance when it comes to its games. As many Internet-using NFL fans know by now, the league keeps an extremely tight leash on even the tiniest of clips from its games. The organization even made headlines last March when it sent a series of DMCA takedown notices to Brooklyn Law School professor Wendy Seltzer because she posted a clip on YouTube that showed the NFL's own copyright notice. In August, however, the NFL took its first baby steps into the big, bad online world by signing a deal with DIRECTV that would allow some satellite subscribers to watch games streamed live to their PCs.

Still, the DIRECTV deal was pretty restrictive, making this new offering even more noteworthy. "We are taking a big leap here," NFL Network's Steve Bornstein told the LA Times. "We are looking at this as a learning opportunity to see what applications work online. We are trying to be innovative and creative to make the viewing experience better for our fans."

NBC plans to sell advertising for the webcasts (presumably they will be free to the public) and the revenues from the ads will be shared with the NFL. Given the massive mainstream appeal of NFL games, the potential for this venture to rake in the advertising dollars is huge. This ain't no live broadcast of an artsy-fartsy documentary or the Jackass 2.5 movie; this is Reggie Bush trying to become the second coming of Barry Sanders.

The NFL and NBC plan to begin offering streams on September 4, a Thursday night game between the Washington Redskins and the New York Giants. After that, they will do regular broadcasts of Sunday night games.

If the league is successful, the move could open up the door to other mainstream TV content being broadcast live online, rather than delayed, as most network fare currently is. Live online House, here I come!

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Brett Favre's waffling? Packers fans won't take it sitting down

Bill Dwyre:


Morry Gash / Associated Press
Charles Mollenkamp, 17, of Brookfield, Wis., shows his support to bring back Green Bay Packers quarterback Brett Favre, at a rally outside Wisconsin State Fair Park on July 14 in Milwaukee.
The quarterback is worshiped in Wisconsin, but his apparent desire to play elsewhere is likely to compromise that loyalty.

These are confusing times for the men and women on the bar stools in the Fox River Valley towns of Wisconsin.

With their shot and a beer comes the inevitable talk of Brett Favre. Some will be wearing their sacred No. 4 Packers jerseys as they belly up. Since the early 1990s, Favre has been the deity and they have knelt before him.
To live in this area for an extended period of time, to call Sheboygan or Appleton or Fond du Lac home, is to better understand it and its people. They work hard, pay bills on time, plan around Friday night fish fries, put the snow tires on in late October and live and die with their Green Bay Packers.

A Sunday afternoon during Packers season is slow death to a local business, unless that business is a sports bar. Even if it isn't snowing, the streets empty and the TV sets hum. For most, the big city is Chicago and the bright lights of New York and Los Angeles are TV images of scary crowds, scarier freeways and horrifying crime.

In many of these towns, there is little reason, or inclination, to lock your doors at night.
When Favre was delivered unto them, lo those 16 years ago, he was the answer to prayers that there could be a reincarnation of Bart Starr.

Starr was a soft-spoken Southerner who said yes-sir and no-sir, won big games in a quiet and efficient manner, and never, ever put ego before team.

Favre was perfect. He was right off a tractor in Mississippi. He was handsome, friendly, accessible to the public, down-to-earth. Better yet, after some growing pains, he became a quarterback so good it was scary.

Packers fans loved him in hundreds of ways and he responded in kind, with longevity, gutsy performances while injured, dozens of exciting comebacks, and even a Super Bowl title in 1997.

In Wisconsin, loyalty is hard earned and hard lost. Waffling is frowned upon.

So, when Favre announced in March that he was retiring and then quickly started to make noises about coming back, the people on the bar stools were both excited and confused. He was their guy, and they knew he could probably still play at a high level.

But their guy wouldn't say one thing and mean another. People change their minds, but Favre was starting to sound like one of those boxers -- retire for show and un-retire for dough.

Now, the confusion has to be at an all-time high. Are the Packers the bad guys because they want to move on, and started to do so with Aaron Rodgers once Favre said he was done? Has boy-next-door Favre been hiding all these years in blue jeans and T-shirts, when his real persona was to take the money -- in this case $12.7 million for next season -- and run, even if he said he didn't want it or need it four months ago?

Now, teams are in training camp. The Packers have Rodgers over center. Something needs to be settled soon, and surely will.

Favre is a great quarterback, probably even now, 10 weeks shy of his 39th birthday. At one point, the Packers were going to retire his beloved No. 4 jersey in a ceremony at their home opener, Sept. 8, against the division-rival Minnesota Vikings.

Now, talk is he might end up being the Vikings' quarterback. There is also talk he could go to the Bears, the only division rival hated more than the Vikings.

It is hard to know who is right and who is wrong here. Maybe the Packers, currently unwilling to release his rights, are the unreasonable ones. Maybe Favre.

There is only one certainty. If Favre quarterbacks either the Vikings or the Bears this season, knowing how Packers fans feel about those teams, the guy in the blue jeans and T-shirt will be a dead memory. There are some places where loyalty trumps money and ego, and Wisconsin is one of them.

If it happens, if Favre goes to the Vikings or Bears, the people on the bar stools will get used to it. There will be memories of the Bart Starr years to dig out.

And there will be rounds of shots and beers, to hoist in toasts to Aaron Rodgers.

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Crooked NBA Ref Gets 15 Months In Prison

Former NBA referee Tim Donaghy arrives at Brooklyn federal court for his sentencing, Tuesday, July 29, 2008, in New York. Donaghy pleaded guilty in August 2007 to federal charges that he took payoffs from a professional gambler for inside tips on games. (AP Photo/ Louis Lanzano)

NEW YORK — Disgraced ex-NBA official Tim Donaghy admitted that he'd brought shame on his profession Tuesday as a federal judge sentenced him to 15 months behind bars for a gambling scandal that still has the league on the defensive.

U.S. District Judge Carol Amon sentenced Donaghy to prison time plus three years of supervised release, saying he'd let the sport down by taking thousands of dollars from a professional gambler in exchange for inside tips on games _ including ones he refereed.

"The NBA, the players and the fans relied on him to perform his job in an honest manner," Amon said. Donaghy listened with his arms folded but showed no emotion.

He told the judge that "I've brought shame on myself, my family and the profession."

Defense attorney John Lauro asked Amon to give his 41-year-old client probation, saying the ex-official was a gambling addict who destroyed "the career he loved" and needed treatment, not incarceration. Donaghy also had sought to make amends by revealing "the good, the bad and the ugly" about the league's officiating, the attorney added.

During the NBA finals, Donaghy said in a court filing that the league routinely encouraged refs to ring up bogus fouls to manipulate results, while discouraging them from calling technical fouls on star players.

In the end, Amon refused Donaghy's plea to stay out of prison, though she imposed a penalty that was not as tough as the 33 months he could have received. Donaghy must surrender to prison on Sept. 23.

Case closed for him. For the NBA, the damage lingers.

Commissioner David Stern has made several moves to quell doubts about the integrity of the NBA's officiating, with more developments to come.

Former Army Gen. Ron Johnson has been hired as senior vice president of referee operations, Bernie Fryer and Joe Borgia were promoted to new management positions and the league reassigned Ronnie Nunn, who had been the director of officials for five years.

Still pending is a league-commissioned review of officiating by former federal prosecutor Lawrence Pedowitz. "I am conducting additional interviews and hope to obtain additional information from the government. My review is well-advanced but not complete," Pedowitz said Tuesday. No date has been set for the report's release.

Justin Wolfers, an assistant professor of business and public policy at Penn's Wharton School, who co-authored a study that said white referees called fouls at a greater rate against black players than against white players, said the league needs to share all the information it has.

"Any fan who sees anything other than transparency will have questions," he said. "I think they want to be as much of an open book with fans, journalists and researchers as they can possibly be."

Perhaps most shocking were Donaghy's charges during the highly anticipated finals between the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers that results were manipulated to help ticket sales and television ratings.

The allegations _ contained in court papers arguing that Donaghy deserved leniency for voluntarily disclosing the alleged corruption _ included one instance claiming referees rigged a 2002 playoff series to force it to a revenue-boosting seventh game.

Though the papers didn't name the teams involved, only the Los Angeles Lakers-Sacramento Kings series went to seven games during those playoffs. The Lakers went on to win the championship.

Both Stern and the league's officials have said Donaghy made the claims to get a lighter sentence.

"We anticipate that the judge's sentencing decision, together with the changes we have made to our referee operations staff, will enable us to continue with the improvements we are making to our anti-gambling rules, policies and procedures," Stern said Tuesday.

"There is little comfort to be gained from the mandatory prison sentence, especially as it affects Mr. Donaghy's children and their mother, but hopefully the healing process can begin in earnest for all."

The NBA could get a break from the Olympics, where the U.S. team is a heavy favorite to bounce back from a bronze-medal performance in 2004 and win the gold. MVP Kobe Bryant and all-star LeBron James, who has guaranteed victory, will lead a loaded U.S. team.

Donaghy pleaded guilty last August to conspiracy to engage in wire fraud and transmitting betting information through interstate commerce in the tips-for-payoffs scheme. "By having this nonpublic information, I was in a unique position to predict the outcome of NBA games," he told a judge at the time.

Lauro said that to clear his conscience, Donaghy began cooperating with prosecutors even before he was charged, and claimed he "provided the government a roadmap" to widespread misconduct in the NBA.

"He told it all _ the good, the bad and the ugly," Lauro said. "He had to do it because it was the right thing to do ... The bottom line is that Mr. Donaghy has been a model cooperator."

Prosecutors have said that though he deserved credit for helping make the case against two co-defendants _ both former high school classmates of Donaghy _ nothing else he alleged was criminal.

At a sentencing last week, James Battista, a professional gambler and admitted drug addict, got 15 months in prison for making bets based on inside tips. Thomas Martino, the scheme's middleman, was sentenced to a year and one day for paying the referee thousands of dollars for the tips. The three men attended school together in Springfield, Pa.

On Tuesday, the judge called Donaghy "more culpable" than the others. "Without Mr. Donaghy, there was no scheme," she said.

The league had demanded nearly $1.4 million in restitution. But the judge last week set the restitution at $217,266, to be paid jointly by the three defendants.

"Tim acted in a completely selfish and unforgivable way, and has forever compromised the way people look at sports and officiating," said Lamell McMorris, spokesperson for the National Basketball Referees Association. "However, NBA referees will continue to officiate with the highest level of integrity and professionalism."

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Kobe Bryant, Jason Kidd are 'elderly statesmen' of American youth brigade

Kobe Bryant, Jason Kidd
Ethan Miller / Getty Images
Kobe Bryant (10), who is approaching his 30th birthday, and 35-year-old Jason Kidd (foreground) are by far the elder statesman of a youthful U.S. Olympic basketball team.

By Mark Heisler, ON OLYMPIC BASKETBALL

MACAO -- After enough embarrassments to last the rest of time, the U.S. international basketball program set out to reclaim the game Dr. James Naismith invented in Springfield, Mass., and the world proceeded to steal, starting with the Americans' triumphant return in the 2006 world championships.

Well, until the semifinals, anyway.

With a new managing director, former Phoenix Suns owner Jerry Colangelo; a new coach, Duke's Mike Krzyzewski; and a serious new regime, the U.S. embarked on its bright new era two years ago, finishing . . .

Third?

The result of all that new structure was a shocking loss to Greece in the semifinals in Saitama, Japan, so maybe something was still missing.

How about a grown-up or two?

In the absence of anyone older, the mantle of leadership fell on Krzyzewski's captains, 22-year-old LeBron James, 22-year-old Carmelo Anthony and 24-year-old Dwyane Wade.

Krzyzewski doesn't plan to name captains this time but he doesn't have to. With or without titles, the leaders are 35-year-old Jason Kidd and Kobe Bryant, who'll turn 30 Aug. 23, the day before the Olympic basketball final.

"The team two years ago was truly not the team that would have represented us in the world championships," Colangelo said, "only because some guys were not available.

"To start with, Kobe [who had arthroscopic knee surgery]. To start with, Jason Kidd [who was excused for family reasons].

"The team performed well but if you were to be critical, you'd say: Young in the backcourt, small in the backcourt, lack of leadership overall because our group was basically a young group.

"Here you're talking about Kobe and Jason, two elderly statesmen, if you will, leaders, competitors. They truly are the leaders of this team. The younger players -- I'm talking about Carmelo, LeBron, Wade, all of them -- they defer to Kobe and to Jason as leaders."

Bryant and Kidd joined the team for last summer's qualifying Tournament of the Americas. The turning point was the first possession of the first game when Bryant batted the ball away from 20-year-old Venezuela point guard Greivis Vasquez, dived on the floor after it and, after Vasquez got it, jumped back up and stole his pass.

An awed Vasquez marveled about watching Bryant on TV all his life and "all of a sudden he was guarding me like it was the last game of his life."

It wasn't actually a coincidence. As a Maryland freshman, Vasquez had just missed a triple-double in his first game in Cameron Indoor Stadium, scoring 13 points with 12 assists and nine rebounds as the Terrapins upset Duke.

Not that Krzyzewski and his staff took it hard but they still talk about Vasquez's triple-double as if he actually got it. When they finished telling Bryant about him, Vasquez was the second coming of Manu Ginobili.

"It was more of a personal challenge," Bryant said. "Duke had had a problem with him. He had a triple-double against them so the coaches were talking him up, saying he did a number on them so could I please pay him back for what he did to them?"

"They beat us on our home court and he had a triple-double, as a freshman," said Duke assistant Chris Collins. "We just told Kobe he's a young player, very flamboyant, very Ginobili-style. We said, 'Hey, if you let him score and do some things early, he's probably going to let you know about it.'

"Kobe came out in the first two minutes and kinda put that to rest."

The rest of the Tournament of the Americas went like that, with the U.S. going unbeaten, winning by an average of 37.5 points.

"I think a spot was open for both of those guys to come in and lead in their own way," Anthony said. "Kobe came in and told everybody, what the team needed him to do, what Coach K needed him to do, he was going to do that. Everybody says that but everybody doesn't always do that. . . .

"They're two totally different personalities. Kobe's more laid back. He's starting to open up a little bit more with the guys around him, which is a good thing, which we're all looking for.

"Jason's just more like a leader all the time, a point guard on the floor and off."

Greece just earned a berth in the Americans' pool in Beijing. If a loss to Maryland could haunt the coaching staff, wait until Bryant hears about the horrors of 2006.

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