Roy Keane was joking. Probably. Arsenal had just lost at home to Wolves, condemning the club to its worst start to a season in almost 40 years. Mikel Arteta’s team had slumped to 14th in the Premier League. It had won only once, domestically, since early October. Still, though, Keane found a silver lining. “They’ll have just about enough to stay up,” he said.
The line was delivered with enough relish to suggest his interest in Arsenal’s possible relegation was not so much sincere concern as an irresistible opportunity to warm the embers of an old rivalry. Keane does not think Arsenal is at risk of losing its place in the Premier League. Of course not. But then the content of the joke was not the part that was supposed to wound. The nature of it was.
Entropy set in at Arsenal a long time ago. Soccer has a heightened sensitivity to sharp, drastic change — the sort that seems to materialize in a day, a week, and then evaporate — but also an ability to remain blissfully numb to the sort that spools out over the span of seasons and years.
The winnowing of Arsenal is a case in point. The latter years of Arsène Wenger’s reign at the club were a case study in slow, steady and, in the moment, almost imperceptible decline: the gradual downgrading of Arsenal first from perennial title challenger to serial F.A. Cup winner, from mainstay in the Champions League to contender for a place and inexorably on, all the way down past hopeful to where it stands now: outsider.
It would be quite wrong, of course, to suggest that nobody noticed. The crowds at the Emirates — before the nine silent months of the pandemic — regularly bubbled with mutiny and protest and dissent. AFTV built an entire media brand on the back of internecine squabbling about the direction of the club. Cubic tons of ink have been spilled detailing each unfurling crisis.
ImageCredit…Adam Davy/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
But something about the time lapse disguised the scale of the decline. That each step — from title challenger to top-four regular, top-four regular to top-four contender and so on — seemed shallow made it possible to miss just how far Arsenal had traveled from the peak, and just how steep the journey back to the summit might be.
That is not to say someone should have spotted the direction of travel, that some soothsayer might have been able to surmise that this is where it would end. Such a prediction would have seemed — and to an extent still does, even with Arsenal marooned in its current mediocrity — laughable.
This is not, after all, supposed to happen, not in the age of the superclubs, in an era in which soccer’s hierarchy is set in stone, when the elite enjoy such wealth and power and grace that they have become untouchable.
A vast divide yawns between the elite and the rest, the bridge drawn up to prevent anyone crossing over. Mostly, we worry that strips teams of their right to dream, but it works in both directions: It also means those who have already made it no longer have any reason to worry. Sure, things might go wrong, but for a given value of wrong. In a bad season, you might finish sixth.
And yet Arsenal proves that status is not frozen, not forever. It is not so long ago, after all, since this was the club that served as an emblem for the self-perpetuation of success. Arsenal could always qualify for the Champions League, 20 years in a row, because it always qualified for the Champions League.
But even that did not mean it was immune to the effects of bad decisions. And, over the last decade or so, under the disinterested stewardship of the Kroenke family, there have been plenty of those.
ImageCredit…Pool photo by Michael Regan
Even Wenger, when we spoke a few weeks ago, wondered if he had stayed — been allowed to stay — too long. When he was replaced, it was by Unai Emery, a perfectly serviceable manager who was wholly unsuited to the job at hand. That unhappy experiment lasted 18 months before Arteta, having learned at the knee of Pep Guardiola, was drafted in.
Off the field, the thinking has been even more muddled. Wenger himself had experimented with remedies. He empowered StatDNA, the analytics firm Arsenal had bought in 2012, but then seemed to move away from its work. When he left, Arsenal seemed to recognize that the job he had done for years was actually several different ones, and (to its credit) recruited specialists to fill each of them.
In came Sven Mislintat, hailed as the visionary behind Borussia Dortmund’s success, who was tasked with turning Arsenal into the home of the best young talent in the world. Then came Raul Sanllehi, with his apparently comprehensive contacts book, with his promise to get Arsenal access to the best agents on the planet and, through them, the best players.
But neither worked well with the other and both, eventually, would leave. Time for another idea: Edu Gaspar, another former player, was made technical director. Arteta was promoted, given wider-ranging responsibilities. Kia Joorabchian, the sort of man you suspect refers to himself as a superagent, seemed to have the inside track on the club’s transfer dealings.
Arsenal’s squad lays bare the lack of coherence behind the scenes. Arteta now has eight (or nine, depending on your definition) central defenders at his disposal, but the club’s record signing, Nicolas Pepe, does not fit neatly into the team. His highest-paid player, Mesut Özil, has been reduced to live-tweeting the team’s games.
ImageCredit…Paul Childs/Action Images, via Reuters
How to pick a route out of this mess remains a mystery, particularly under Arsenal’s current ownership. For a while, over the summer, it seemed as if Arteta’s bright promise as a coach might be enough. He had crafted a team that was resilient and disciplined and smart, one that offered a kernel of what an updated, modernized Arsenal could be. He won the F.A. Cup and the Community Shield.
A few months later, that momentum has been surrendered. Arsenal heads to Tottenham on Sunday not only behind its league-leading rival in the table, but trailing Chelsea and West Ham, too. It is, for the time being, the fourth-best team in London.
The coronavirus pandemic has wreaked havoc on its finances. Its roster is an uneasy blend of young promise and fading high-earners. It does not want to sell the former and it cannot move the latter; all it can do is let them run their contracts down. Where the money will come from for the necessary, multiyear rebuild is anyone’s guess.
Arsenal will recover, of course. It will return, though it is likely to be a long and arduous journey. In the meantime, it stands as a warning to the rest of the elite that their place at the top table has not been granted in perpetuity: It is yours only so long as you make (enough of) the right decisions.
And it offers inspiration to all those teams who harbor aspirations of, one day, usurping the established order: to Leicester and to Wolves and to Everton and the rest. The divide can be bridged. Permanence is an illusion. People — clubs — make mistakes, no matter their size or their wealth or their self-perception. Keane was joking, probably, when he said Arsenal would not suffer relegation. In a way, though, it already has.
Finally, a Good Thing Out of Brexit
The sunlit uplands are just a few weeks away. Britain will leave the European Union on Jan. 1 and it will finally be free to … have its own currency? No, that’s not it. Control its own borders? Oh, it did that anyway. Turn Kent, the garden of England, into a gigantic parking lot for trucks? Seems a strange thing to want, but if that’s what you like, great.
Brexit’s impact on soccer will, in all likelihood, not be particularly noticeable in the Premier League. English clubs will, in theory, no longer be able to recruit so liberally from Europe, but most of the players of interest to the teams of the country’s top division will readily meet the criteria to be granted permission to play in it. (Lower-tier teams, and the majority of clubs in Scotland, may feel more of an effect on their recruitment plans.)
Most important, though, was one throwaway line hidden deep in the weeds of the Premier League’s statement on how international transfers will work in this brave new world. English teams will, starting Jan. 1, no longer be able to sign any international player until the player has turned 18.
ImageCredit…Oliver Weiken/European Pressphoto Agency
This, make no mistake, is a problem for the Premier League’s elite, who have spent the better part of two decades trawling around Europe for any fresh-faced teenager with even a scintilla of talent and using their financial muscle to draw them in. They have been allowed to do so because of a European Union exemption in FIFA’s statutes on the cross-border transfers of minors.
Now they will have to stop. England’s clubs can no longer be hothouses of international talent. And — through gritted teeth — that is a good thing. It may, in fact, be the most obvious benefit anyone has seen from Brexit to date.
There are some cases in which teenage players benefit from being allowed to leave their home countries in order to sign for one of the world’s biggest clubs. Players in countries without the infrastructure to nurture their talent, for example, or where their development might be improved by access to better facilities.
For the most part, though, the E.U. exemption is used to pluck Spanish, Dutch, Belgian and French teenagers from academies that have reared them from a young age, and to do it at a knockdown price.
The clubs that lose the teenagers are not reimbursed suitably for the work they have done; instead, they miss out on the premium fee they might receive if the player completed their education at home. The players are, with only a handful of exceptions, treated as assets, rather than individuals, to be fattened and sold at a profit, rather than given a chance to shine.
It entrenches inequality, rather than addressing it, ensuring more and more of the world’s best talent coalesces at certain clubs. English teams have exploited it more than anyone else in recent years (Manchester United currently has three Czech or Slovak goalkeepers in its ranks, all of them teenagers) but must now stop. It would be a benefit of Brexit for everybody if FIFA took this as a chance to clamp down on the loophole, to close it, for everyone else, too.
Change Is Good. But Not This Change.
In its final moments, then, the Champions League group stage might deliver something approaching excitement after all. On Tuesday, one of Manchester United, Paris St.-Germain and RB Leipzig will be eliminated. On Wednesday, both (or neither) of Atlético Madrid and Real Madrid might follow.
It is a welcome coda to what has been a particularly predictable six weeks, an autumn that has made the proposed restructuring of the competition starting in 2024 — adopting the so-called Swiss Model, in which teams would play 10 group games and be ranked on a “giant” league table of all 32 teams — seem, if not appealing, then at least understandable.
The new plan solves severable problems. Well, no: It solves one problem in several ways. It means teams will play more games, and big teams will play more games against other big teams, which means everyone will make more money from broadcast contracts.
ImageCredit…Peter Powell/EPA, via Shutterstock
But the plan fails on two counts. One: It is not nearly as intuitive as the current system, which is, and this is just pure science, the best format for a sporting competition yet invented, as the World Cup will prove in 2026. And two: It places too much emphasis on prestige fixtures, and too little on drama. It gives the powerful clubs too many chances to fail.
What will make next week special is not that there will be lots of games between glamorous names, but that some of those glamorous names will be in jeopardy. Whatever change comes to the Champions League — and change can be good, too — that should be the priority: increasing the risks, not ring-fencing the rewards.
ImageCredit…Anita Pouchard Serra for The New York Times
It is probably no surprise that the death of Diego Maradona touched so many of you, but still, it has been lovely to read all of the memories of and tributes to him that have filled my inbox in the last week. I particularly liked Ron Amato’s conclusion after “bingeing on highlights reels” for a week: “He got the ball, and stuff happened.”
Folu Ogundimu hit upon a question I’ve been thinking about, too: “How do you compare Pelé’s great artistry and influence on soccer to Maradona’s?” I had this thought while I was writing last week’s newsletter: I’m not sure you would say that Pelé changed the game, particularly, in the way that Cruyff definitively did — there isn’t a Pelé role or a Pelé tactic or a Peléan school of thinking. Pelé’s greatness maybe resides, instead, in the sense of mastery, that he had perfected the game.
Thomas Jakobsh made an insightful observation, too, that “the suggestion his mistakes and frailties were the inevitable flip side, or byproduct, of his on-field genius” does not hold water. (This came up on Set Piece Menu this week, as it happens).
“There is a much more prosaic explanation: The world is filled with grifters, con men, unscrupulous agents, hustlers, mobsters. As Jorge Valdano has elegantly explained, Maradona was a victim, perhaps even the perfect victim,” Thomas wrote. “Adulation stalked him since he was 16, and nothing in those first 16 years equipped him for what was to come. For this failure, there is a lot of blame to be shared.”
And I just wanted to respond to Lucas Bongarra, who felt that last week’s piece communicated that Maradona was “not so spectacular, that he was great then, but couldn’t do any of the unbelievable stuff in today’s game.”
That certainly was not what I thought last week’s column said. While I don’t think Diego Maradona transformed soccer, he most definitely transformed what we thought of as possible within it. As for whether he would thrive in the modern game: yes, obviously, he was inordinately talented. Whether modern soccer could produce a Maradona, I’m not so sure. That may be both to its credit and to its detriment.
The American Academy of Pediatrics posted updated guidance Friday on young people and sports in the pandemic, making a strong recommendation that participants should wear face masks for all indoor sports. It made exceptions only while swimming and diving, since it’s harder to breathe through wet masks; during gymnastics and cheerleading, where masks could get caught or obstruct vision; and during wrestling contact, where they could be a choking hazard.
Cloth face masks are also encouraged for outdoor sports, when athletes are competing, in group training sessions and on the sidelines. The new recommendations are a response to rising numbers of Covid-19 cases in children and are meant to protect the athletes themselves, their family members and their communities.
The academy had issued previous guidance on children and sports in the pandemic, but this revision notably strengthens the face mask recommendations for those actually engaged in vigorous exercise, and offers clarifications on cardiac risks for young athletes who have had Covid-19.
“We know kids are getting infected at a significant rate, we know kids live with adults and there’s a significant rate of transmission if they bring it home,” said Dr. Susannah Briskin, an associate professor of pediatric sports medicine at Rainbow Babies and Children’s Hospital in Cleveland, who is on the executive committee for the American Academy of Pediatrics’ council on sports medicine and fitness, and was co-author on the new guidance.
Dr. Briskin said that in states that have mandated masks for all sports, “athletes tolerated the change very well — most people take a couple of practices to find a mask they can work out in.” When she was working on the guidance, Dr. Briskin started exercising in a mask herself, and tried several kinds to find the right one. It may take more than one session to get used to wearing the face mask during exercise, she said. “The first time, people may find it to be an annoyance; by the second or third, they don’t notice,” she said.
Heart problems after Covid-19 have been a concern in athletes, both children and adults, since early in the pandemic, when it became clear that the novel coronavirus could cause myocarditis, or inflammation of the heart muscle. So the advice has been adjusted for young athletes who have had Covid-19 and want to return to play.
The new A.A.P. guidance specifies that children and adolescents who have had asymptomatic disease or mild disease need to be screened by their primary care providers before returning to sports. Those who have not been sick, or who have had less than four days of fever and other mild symptoms, should see their regular doctors, who are expected to carry out a cardiovascular history and physical (the American Heart Association recommends a 14-point screening checklist).
All those who have had Covid-19, even without symptoms, should thus be asked about symptoms like chest pain, shortness of breath, palpitations or fainting. A positive screen or an abnormal physical exam should lead to an EKG and a referral to a pediatric cardiologist. And a child or adolescent who had a more significant bout with Covid-19 — including fever for four days or more; more severe and prolonged symptoms of muscle aches, chills or lethargy; or a hospitalization — should see a cardiologist after symptoms resolve and before starting to exercise.
Even those who were completely asymptomatic should increase activity gradually, and only after being screened, Dr. Briskin said, suggesting five stages of incremental progress toward full activity; the A.A.P. recommends a schedule for graduated return to play that was published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine earlier this year.
Dr. Aaron Baggish, the director of the cardiovascular performance program at Massachusetts General Hospital Heart Center, said that early in the pandemic, when it became clear that many of those who were sick enough to be admitted to the hospital with Covid had evidence of injury to the heart, those who worked with athletes began worrying about what they might see in young people.
Early guidelines were very conservative, he said, and recommended extensive testing, but more recently, with better information, it has become clear that it is more important to focus on those who were more significantly ill. Dr. Baggish was the senior author of an article, “Coronavirus Disease 2019 and the Athletic Heart,” published in October in the journal JAMA Cardiology, which put forth guidance for cardiac testing in adult athletes before they can return to play. The article also argued that while there are still many unknowns about the possible effects of Covid-19 on the heart, the single most important consideration about organized sports should be preventing transmission and viral spread.
Dr. Briskin agreed that the initial approach pediatricians took, when not much was known about the effects of Covid-19 infection, to “make sure we were doing everything we could to protect our athletes,” advice was generally to be very conservative. “We’re just starting to hit the point where we’re getting some data about cardiac effects of Covid-19 on a younger population,” she said; “that’s going to help us give more accurate guidance for return to play.”
Dr. Peter Dean, a pediatric cardiologist who is the team cardiologist for University of Virginia athletes, and who sits on the American College of Cardiology sports and exercise leadership committee, said that as far back as June, athletes who had had Covid were starting to ask if they could go back to playing. The recommendations for adults at the time suggested fairly extensive cardiac testing for everyone, including EKGs, echocardiograms and blood tests for troponins (proteins that increase when there is injury to heart muscle).
“At that point we really weren’t seeing pediatric cases,” Dr. Dean said, and it seemed that children were less severely affected by the infection in general. Covid-19 infection can definitely affect the heart in a child or adolescent, Dr. Dean said, and some children, such as those with multisystem inflammatory syndrome, do need extensive cardiac work-ups. But rather than testing all children, it makes sense to focus on those who had moderate or severe disease, or who have persistent symptoms.
“Myocarditis is a big deal, but it’s incredibly rare,” he said.
“I think we are less worried as a community now about subclinical myocarditis than we were before,” Dr. Dean said. There was a fear, perhaps, that children who had been mildly ill might have sudden cardiac arrests, either at home or when exercising, but “we just haven’t seen it.”
Dr. Alex Diamond, the director of the program for injury prevention in youth sports at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, said that the conversation about returning to play after even asymptomatic Covid infection should be “another opportunity for pediatricians to have a touchpoint with their patients.”
Because of the pandemic, he said, “we’re seeing people delaying care for other issues,” and missing well child checks and vaccinations. The sports physical allows the pediatrician to do all the other important checks to make sure that a child or adolescent is doing well and can safely participate in sports.
And anyone who continues to have symptoms after Covid, especially shortness of breath, palpitations or chest pain, should be seen promptly by a doctor. “Watch out for any exertional type symptoms,” Dr. Diamond said.
Sports have great value in the lives of children and adolescents, and people who practice sports medicine tend to believe strongly in the benefits of athletic participation. “Our kids need some outlets, their lives have been turned completely upside down, like the rest of us,” Dr. Diamond said. “For some, their only outlet is sports.” But the benefits of exercise make it even more urgent to make things as safe as possible.
“When we talk about the risk of playing sports, we have to look at the risk of not playing sports,” Dr. Dean said.
Contact sports bring people close together, Dr. Briskin said, and as sports move indoors for the winter, the risk of transmission increases. “If people want to give sports a chance to continue in a safe manner, they need to give thought how to do it safely and curtail spread before we see lots of teams isolated or people infected,” Dr. Briskin said. In addition, the athletes need to restrict their activity away from sports, she said, again minimizing their own risks and reducing community spread.
Ironman triathlon champions are often regarded as the superheroes of modern sports, freakishly fit specimens who swim, cycle and run a combined 140.6 miles in roughly eight hours.
Yet, professional triathletes have long been poorly compensated afterthoughts in a sport that has always prioritized the everyday amateur participants who squeeze in training before and after work and pay nearly $1,000 to enter a race.
That may be on the verge of changing, beginning this weekend in Daytona Beach, Fla., where many of the sport’s top professionals will launch a championship circuit they hope will become as lucrative as the golf and tennis championships are for their pros. In the process, they are trying to unseat Ironman, the company that has dominated triathlon for decades, as the premier competition for elite triathletes.
“It’s actually harder to make a living as a professional triathlete now than it was when I started in 2008,” said Tim O’Donnell, 40, who has won more than 20 major triathlon events. “Most athletes are just trying to pay their bills.”
The new series of events, backed by the Professional Triathletes Organization, a fledgling alliance among 350 top triathletes and numerous deep-pocketed investors, is the latest attempt by top athletes to become highly compensated partners with control of their careers and the sports they play rather than undervalued independent contractors.
Although the history of sports is filled with leagues and tours that theoretically looked perfect but foundered after failing to gain an audience, when successful the change can be dramatic. In the 1960s, Wimbledon semifinalists received two pairs of shorts from Lillywhites, the sports emporium in London. Then, Grand Slams started allowing professionals and, beginning in the 1970s, tennis players took control of their tours. Last year, a Wimbledon semifinalist earned $750,000 and the singles champions earned nearly $3 million each.
By comparison, in 2019, the total prize money at the Ironman World Championship in Kona, Hawaii, the Super Bowl of triathlon, was $650,000. The winners won $120,000. Earlier this year, Advance Publications, the media company, bought Ironman for $730 million.
“These athletes should be highly paid co-owners,” said Charles Adamo, executive chairman of the Professional Triathletes Organization.
A spokesman for Ironman declined to comment.
Adamo, the world’s top triathletes, and investors like Michael Moritz, the billionaire venture capitalist have planned a race series with four major individual competitions and an annual team event, similar to the championship schedules in tennis and golf.
ImageCredit…Francois Nel/Getty Images
Each event will feature 60 top professional men and 60 top professional women. The events will offer more than $1 million in prize money that the top 20 athletes will share — significantly more than at the typical triathlon competition.
Instead of the 140.6-mile Ironman distance, or the 70.3 mile half-Ironman, the new competitions will be 100 kilometers, about 62 miles, and include a 1.2 mile swim, a 48-mile bike ride and a half-marathon (13.1 miles). This weekend’s race will take place within the Daytona International Speedway, with competitors swimming in the large lake in the infield.
The shorter distance ensures competitions can finish within a more television friendly window of about three-and-half-hours. It will also allow elite athletes to do more high-profile competitions than they otherwise might in a year. O’Donnell predicted top triathletes would participate in the new group’s five events, plus one regular Ironman event to qualify for Kona and, if they make it, the world championship.
Increased prize money should provide an incentive for triathletes to compete head-to-head more often.
Rachel Joyce, a retired champion and the co-president of the triathletes organization, said she and other top triathletes regularly picked races in which they knew a weak field would give them the best chance at the winner’s paycheck and the sponsor bonuses for placing first.
“It makes it kind of boring when your closest competitor is 20 minutes behind you,” Joyce said in an interview last month.
That is only part of the down side of professional triathlon, a sport that began as a lark in the 1970s in California and Hawaii. The dirty secret about elite triathletes, with their chiseled physiques, $8,000 bikes and training schedules that allow for unlimited chocolate cream pie, is that for most of the pros, the pay is relatively lousy.
Kevin Durant of the Nets will approach $40 million this season, not counting the millions more he earns through sponsorships. In 2019, Jan Frodeno of Germany, the reigning Ironman world champion and something of a deity to triathletes, got paid like a decent accountant for his victories, taking home $158,000 in prize money. Katie Zaferes of the United States, who led the prize money list for both men and women in 2019, earned $347,500. Just $80,000 in winnings was good enough for a spot in the top 10 on the money list. For the best of the best, endorsement deals can boost income — to the range of a bad middle relief pitcher — but since triathlon is barely on television, those lucrative endorsement deals are increasingly hard to come by for all but the superstars.
“The best triathletes are doing pretty well, but the ones in the middle and the bottom are hurting,” said Rocky Harris, chief executive of U.S.A. Triathlon, the sport’s national governing body.
Alissa Doehla, was a professional marathoner until 2016, when she decided to pursue the triathlon. She estimates the switch required about a $20,000 investment in equipment. She had five top 10 finishes in half-Ironman events in 2017. Then she got hit by a truck while training in 2018. She has returned to competitions and said while it’s possible she broke even that first year she certainly has not since then.
ImageCredit…Tom Pennington/Getty Images,
“It’s so expensive up front,” Doehla, 34, said from her home in Indiana last month, where she was training for this weekend’s race in Daytona Beach. “My husband has a good job. For people who are not lucky enough to have a spouse to support them in the lean years it is a tough sport.”
The new series will only work if fans actually watch. That would drive up media rights fees and spur potential sponsors to try to reach a very desirable audience.
U.S.A. Triathlon has found the average income for all triathletes is more than $125,000. The sport’s boosters like to portray triathlon as the 21st century version of golf — a favored activity among white collar executives who obsess about data from their Garmin watches with an intensity their predecessors gave to golf handicaps. But participatory endurance sports have always been about maximizing entry fees rather than creating the stars who compete for million dollar purses and make compelling televised sports drama.
Some 100 media outlets worldwide, including NBC’s Peacock streaming service, will feature the Daytona Beach race this weekend. Moving forward though, organizers need long-term rights and sponsorship deals.
The new endeavor plans to allow weekend warriors to participate in its competitions but their entry fees will not be enough to sustain the organization and the prize money it wants to offer.
Chris Kermode, who ran tennis’s ATP Tour and is now the vice chairman of the Professional Triathletes Organization, said if slick televised championships in
snooker and darts could create celebrity champions, triathletes, who are usually more attractive physical specimens than dart throwers or billiards players, should be able to find their way.
“The principles of all sports are fundamentally the same,” Kermode said. “It is about making people care about one person winning over someone else. Everybody has a story and if you tell that story you can get people to care.”
HONG KONG — The last time an illustration of the tennis star Naomi Osaka made headlines, it was for all the wrong reasons.
In an advertisement for an instant noodle brand, Ms. Osaka, the daughter of a Japanese mother and a Haitian-American father, was shown with light skin in an anime-style depiction. Her fans called it whitewashing.
“I’m tan,” Ms. Osaka said at the time. “It’s pretty obvious.”
So this year, as a manga magazine in Japan worked on an issue that will portray Ms. Osaka as an alien-vanquishing intergalactic tennis champion, it insisted on getting major details right.
This time, Ms. Osaka will, indeed, be tan.
The magazine, Nakayoshi, “was very careful on that subject,” said Ms. Osaka’s sister, Mari Osaka, 24, a professional tennis player and illustrator who was a consultant on the project.
“They were the ones who came up to me, and they were like: ‘We have to get the skin color right. What percentage darkness should it be?’” she said in a phone interview this week.
Naomi Osaka, 23, the highest-earning female athlete on the planet, has emerged as one of the most vocal antiracism activists in the sports world. In the July issue of Esquire, she wrote about tackling racism while inhabiting multiple identities. Before matches this year, she wore masks bearing the names of Black victims of police violence.
The manga issue dwells firmly in the realm of fantasy, not Ms. Osaka’s real-world activism. Titled “Naomi Unrivaled” and set to be released on Dec. 28, it tells a coming-of-age story that takes place in outer space, with Ms. Osaka battling extraterrestrials in a super-enhanced version of tennis.
ImageCredit…Futago Kamikita, Tama Mizuno/Kodansha
The manga draws on the intimate bond of the Osaka sisters. Mari appears as a staunch supporter, along with their parents.
“In the end, the manga is a stewing battle in outer space,” she said, adding that her sister had long been interested in appearing in manga, which they both read every day as children. “We’re not trying to make a point with the manga,” she added. “That should be saved for something else, really.”
Such as television ads.
Last week, a Nike Japan commercial depicting the alienation of biracial children in the country showed a snippet of Naomi discussing the Black Lives Matter movement in a YouTube video, only to be asked in the comments: “So are you Japanese or American?”
The ad generated a backlash in Japan, a largely homogeneous country where discussions of race and diversity are often resisted by a conservative strain in the population.
While many Japanese people support Naomi Osaka’s activism and take pride in her representation of the country in global competitions, some social media users responded by threatening to boycott Nike products, saying that Japan was being smeared.
Most of Ms. Osaka’s sponsors in Japan have been much more eager to link themselves to her tennis performance than her activism, with representatives of the companies sometimes expressing displeasure — always anonymously — in the Japanese news media.
To Mari, the response to the Nike ad was telling. Some in Japan, where the Osaka sisters were born and spent their earliest years before moving to the United States, see Naomi as a troublemaker for talking about a xenophobia that they do not believe exists, she said.
ImageCredit…Matthew Stockman/Getty Images
“If they don’t see the problem in front of their eyes, they don’t believe it,” she said. “People think she’s bringing a problem where there’s no problem.”
Mari has taken an active role in shaping Naomi’s public image, particularly in illustrations and designs. She created a portrait of her sister staring firmly ahead for an issue of GQ Japan calling for solidarity in the face of the epidemic. For the Esquire article, she drew multiple outlines of Naomi’s face blending into one.
Naomi wrote in that magazine that the killing of George Floyd had galvanized her to speak up about systemic racism and police brutality. As she waited for tennis players to take a public stance, she said in a separate conversation with Billie Jean King, she realized she should make the first step.
While Naomi, who has described herself as shy, has been praised in the United States for finding her voice this year as an activist, she has always been conscious of racial bias, Mari said. In private, the sisters have often discussed how they were treated in the United States, Japan and other countries where they have traveled for matches, sharing stories about the people they met.
“We’ve known this issue and we’ve talked about it, and now she has people listening to it when she talks,” Mari said.
In a statement, the manga magazine did not address Ms. Osaka’s activism, but said that she was the “perfect new heroine” to present to readers.
“She works hard on training every day, and she dramatically demonstrates mental growth, one match after another,” it said. “She has a strong will and makes tremendous efforts behind the growth.”
Hisako Ueno contributed reporting from Tokyo.
PORTLAND, Ore. — At the revamped athletic offices in Matthew Knight Arena, a trophy case has a small platform that has deliberately been left empty as one tribute to a celebration that never happened.
Would the Oregon Ducks — who were ranked No. 2 nationally and had the star guard Sabrina Ionescu plus two other players eventually selected near the top of the W.N.B.A. draft — have won the women’s N.C.A.A. basketball tournament last season?
The team never got the chance to find out as the hoops bonanza known as March Madness became one of the first major sporting events in the United States canceled because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“We’ll never get over that. That left a hole in our heart forever,” Kelly Graves, the Oregon coach, said before the season began.
The case — near others that contain Nike team sneakers and signed basketballs, among other memorabilia — has room for a trophy but only a small white platform inside, with a team photo on one side and the slogan “Unfinished Business” on another with a summary of the season. Ionescu, who was selected first over all by the Liberty in the W.N.B.A. draft, used the motto before the start of her senior season and it took on new meaning once the tournament was canceled, which the summary said ended “possibly the greatest season in program history.”
Said Graves: “It’s something that we will keep blank until one day we are fortunate enough to win a national championship.”
That feeling of missed opportunity is an undercurrent for some teams as college basketball returns for a new season, a beginning that is already rife with problems that have led to coaches openly questioning the wisdom of playing with the virus surging around the United States.
“It was really difficult for the returners to let go of last season. It took a long time, it was a big transition,” Oregon forward Erin Boley said after scoring 25 points and grabbing nine rebounds against Portland on Monday. “We are so excited to have this new team, and it’s a great opportunity for us to create something special.”
Luka Garza, the star center for the Iowa men’s basketball team, said many teams feel similarly because there was no closure on the court in the spring.
ImageCredit…Charlie Neibergall/Associated Press
“We worked so hard to put ourselves in a position to make the N.C.A.A. tournament and possibly make a run in the Big Ten tournament,” Garza said after scoring 41 points against Southern on Friday. He added: “In the off-season, I just went into the gym and started working out again. It hit me later, like a month later, that the season was finally over and I took a break.”
Dayton could have had a top seed in the N.C.A.A. men’s tournament last season and was primed for a deep run with Obi Toppin, the consensus national player of the year who was drafted by the Knicks last month. Dayton’s coach, Anthony Grant, said he has been telling his players to “be where your feet are” and not focus on last year, even though it’s easy to speculate.
Grant’s approach makes sense in a sport where much changes season to season and this team’s goals are its own. The same rings true for the Oregon women, even as this season carries its own uncertainty as the coronavirus cases increase.
“Everyone that gets recruited here is a winner here, I don’t think that changes,” said Oregon guard Taylor Chavez, who won the Pac-12 Conference’s Sixth Player of the Year Award last season. “The path to that will look different, but the goal is to win as many games as you can and have fun doing it. Nothing has changed with the goals.”
Those ambitions are clearly visible at Oregon’s practice courts, where signs on the walls have empty spaces for future accomplishments and a listing of N.C.A.A. tournament appearances include an interesting notation: “2020.” When the N.C.A.A. tournaments were canceled, there were no official brackets released (though Oregon certainly would have earned a No. 1 seed and automatically qualified for the women’s tournament because it had won the Pac-12 final).
Outside expectations for Oregon have lowered somewhat this season, with three teams in the Pac-12 ranked ahead of the Ducks in The Associated Press Top 25 poll. Besides losing Ionescu, who in April won the John R. Wooden Award as college basketball’s best player for the second straight season and finished as the N.C.A.A. leader in triple-doubles, Oregon also said farewell to Satou Sabally, who was drafted No. 2 over all by the Dallas Wings, and Ruthy Hebard, who went No. 8 to the Chicago Sky.
This season, the team is built around the game-altering presence of Sedona Prince, who is 6-foot-7 and was not able to play last year after the N.C.A.A. denied her a waiver so she could play right away after transferring from Texas. (Fans made T-shirts to support her, but she could not sell them, and she sued the N.C.A.A. to challenge its amateurism rules, saying they stopped her from earning money to pay more than $22,000 in medical bills. The lawsuit is pending.)
“I have such a greater purpose to play basketball now. I’m excited, it’s fun,” Prince said. “Sitting on the bench with that team, last year’s team, is something I’ll never be able to explain. I wish I would have played, but it did help me a lot.”
ImageCredit…Soobum Im/Getty Images
Graves said it has been tougher to help build a tight bond without certain activities like team meals during the pandemic. The harsh memories of last season, he said, should be used as a reminder that “you never know” what can happen, with injuries or other circumstances.
“You have to appreciate every movement. You have to love your teammates each and every day,” Graves said. “Get the best of what you have each day because tomorrow is not guaranteed to you. And we try to live by that.”
Of 546 N.B.A. players recently screened for the coronavirus, 48 tested positive, the league announced Wednesday, a day after training camps opened for the 2020-21 season.
The league said in a statement that the testing began last week as players started returning to their teams’ cities. The statement did not say which players had tested positive.
“Anyone who has returned a confirmed positive test during this initial phase of testing in their team’s market is isolated until they are cleared for leaving isolation under the rules established by the N.B.A. and the Players Association in accordance with C.D.C. guidance,” the N.B.A. said in its statement.
For the coming season, the league is departing from the so-called bubble environment it established to finish the interrupted 2019-20 season, which was halted for four and a half months before resuming with the players and vital team personnel living together in an isolation zone at Walt Disney World near Orlando, Fla. No player tested positive there after clearing quarantine.
Now, most teams will compete at their usual arenas, except for the Toronto Raptors, who will play in Tampa, Fla., because of travel restrictions between the United States and Canada. Most of the arenas will be devoid of fans, although some may have limited attendance, like the State Farm Arena, home of the Atlanta Hawks.
The regular season is slated to begin Dec. 22 and will last 72 games, 10 fewer than in a typical N.B.A. season.
Hamish MacInnes, a lanky Scotsman of considerable derring-do who scaled dangerous mountain peaks all over the world, invented lifesaving equipment for climbers and wrote the definitive book on how to conduct mountain rescues, died on Nov. 22 at his home in Glencoe, in the Scottish Highlands. He was 90.
British news reports said the cause was cancer.
Mr. MacInnes led or took part in 20 major expeditions, including four to Mount Everest. He almost lost his life there in an avalanche in 1975, when he was deputy leader of one of the most arduous and spectacular ascents in the history of climbing: a trek up Everest’s southwest face led by the British mountaineer Chris Bonington.
In his many decades on mountains, Mr. MacInnes was believed to be lost or dead on at least six occasions, sometimes during attempts to rescue other people. This is not counting the time he pressed on up the Bonatti pillar of the Dru in the French Alps with a fractured skull from a rockfall.
Mr. MacInnes’s Spider-Man-like ability to scale sheer cliffs and his goatlike skill in negotiating rocky terrain led Clint Eastwood, as well as the Monty Python troupe, to enlist him as a consultant on their films. He worked as a stunt coordinator on “The Eiger Sanction,” a 1975 spy thriller directed by Mr. Eastwood, enabling Mr. Eastwood to film while on the terrifying north face of the Eiger, in Switzerland, and perform his stunts himself. In “Monty Python and the Holy Grail” (1975), Mr. MacInnes helped set up a rope bridge in Glencoe, his hometown, that became the Bridge of Death in the movie.
ImageCredit…Hamish MacInnes collection, via Alpinist Magazine
He also worked with Robert De Niro and Jeremy Irons on “The Mission” (1986), about a missionary in South America, and with Sean Connery on “Five Days One Summer” (1982), the story of a love triangle in the Alps in which a climbing guide dies under suspicious circumstances. (During the shoot, the body of a real guide who had been missing for more than 30 years emerged from the ice.)
But for all of his sure-footedness in perilous circumstances, Mr. MacInnes was thrown by an internal challenge.
When he was 84, he was found unconscious in front of his house. He was sent to a psychiatric hospital, where he was deemed demented and held against his will for 15 months. During that time, he was sedated and put in a straitjacket, his weight plummeted, and his memory vanished. He made several attempts to escape; at one point he scaled the outside wall of the hospital, only to end up on the roof with nowhere to go.
Doctors eventually discovered that he had been suffering from a chronic urinary tract infection that produced dementia-like symptoms.
They told him he was lucky to have written several books and appeared in scores of documentaries, because they could help jog his memory. Immersing himself in his library and film archives, he was able to reconstruct his past and eventually restore most of his memory. The episode is recounted in a 2018 documentary, “Final Ascent: The Legend of Hamish MacInnes.”
Mr. MacInnes often said that experience was more traumatizing than anything he had faced on a mountain.
ImageCredit…John Cleare for The New York Times
He was born Hamish McInnes on July 7, 1930, in Gatehouse of Fleet, a town in southwestern Scotland, to Duncan and Katie (MacDonald) McInnes. (He later adopted the more distinctive Scottish spelling of his surname.) His father, who had served with the Chinese police in Shanghai and later in the British Army during World War I, owned a general store.
The family soon moved to Greenock, on the River Clyde in Scotland’s west central Lowlands. There Hamish was introduced to climbing by a neighbor, Bill Hargreaves, who was not only a skilled climber but also rigorous about safety, which made a deep impression on Hamish.
Hamish was the first to make several of Scotland’s most treacherous winter climbs, and at 16 he successfully assaulted the Matterhorn.
In 1953, when he was 23, he and a climbing buddy, John Cunningham, decided more or less on a lark to try to become the first to summit Everest. They had little money, few provisions and no permission from the government of Nepal to venture up the world’s highest peak. Their plan was to live off rations that had been abandoned by a Swiss climbing team the year before.
After dodging police checkpoints, they arrived at the base camp, where they learned that Edmund Hillary and his Sherpa guide, Tenzing Norgay, had already reached the summit. The young men turned their attention instead to a nearby peak, Pumori, which no one had yet conquered. But when they were nearly at the top, they decided the danger of avalanches was too great, and they turned back.
As inventive as he was adventurous, Mr. MacInnes built a car from scratch when he was 17. He later used radar to search for bodies in the snow and, in 1961, founded the Glencoe Mountain Rescue Team in 1961. He also trained dogs to help search for avalanche victims. His friends called him “the fox of Glencoe” for his cunning in finding lost climbers.
Perhaps his most famous invention was the first all-steel ice ax. It was a significant improvement on the wooden-handled ax, which snapped under pressure.
He also developed a foldable lightweight mountain rescue stretcher that is still in use today and an avalanche information service. His “International Mountain Rescue Handbook” (1972) became the go-to manual for rescue teams all over the world.
All told, his inventions and services saved countless lives.
“No one man has done more to help put in place the network of emergency response efforts designed to keep climbers from harm’s way,” The Scotsman newspaper wrote after Mr. MacInnes’s death.
He lived alone in Glencoe, in a house he had built by hand, and leaves no immediate survivors. He had been married in 1960 to a woman he had met climbing in the Alps, but the marriage dissolved a decade later.
ImageCredit…Bill Fraser/Mirrorpix, via Getty Images
In addition to his many other pursuits, Mr. MacInnes was an accomplished photographer (he prized a shot that he took of Mr. Eastwood in action during the filming of “The Eiger Sanction”) and the author of roughly 40 books. Most were about climbing and rescuing, but he also wrote murder mysteries. He could cram so much into his day, he said, because he slept only four hours a night.
One of his enduring pleasures was the friendship he developed with Michael Palin of Monty Python during the filming of “Monty Python and the Holy Grail.” His task at one point was to toss dummy bodies into what the movie called the Gorge of Eternal Peril.
As onlookers stared at the bizarre scene of a man throwing what appeared to be bodies into the gorge, Mr. Palin recalled to the BBC, he told them, “Don’t worry, he’s the head of mountain rescue.”
Diego Maradona’s wake knew no borders. Fans held a vigil in his name in Naples. His image lit up the Burj Khalifa in Dubai. The New Zealand rugby team laid a jersey in his honor on a field in Newcastle, Australia. His face adorned the front pages of newspapers across the world.
In Buenos Aires, though, the mourning felt personal. The Argentine capital was not just the city where he was born — in Villa Fiorito, one of its most deprived districts — and where he lay in state, at the city’s presidential palace, after his death last week.
It was in Buenos Aires where he became the Maradona the world would know: at Argentinos Juniors, the club where he took his first steps in professional soccer, a teenager of almost impossibly rich promise; at Boca Juniors, the club where he became the brightest star of his generation.
And it was to Buenos Aires that he returned — as a player, as a coach and always, at Boca, as a fan — again and again once his playing career had faded, once his star had fallen. Buenos Aires can feel like a city built around soccer. After the death of the player who defined that culture more than any other, then, it should be no surprise that it was to soccer that porteños turned in their grief.
“We all wanted to be Maradona. We wanted to copy everything. We wanted to do like him.”
“I didn’t have the chance to see him play, but I watched all the videos, I am a fan of Boca Juniors, and he is the biggest thing there is, there is no comparison. We had him as an immortal.”
“The news hurt me a lot. It represents the rebel, the one who is not silent, the one who attacks the powerful. In Che’s line, for example, for those at the bottom and for me that is important.”
Carlos and María Olivera, 67 and 74
Carlos: “A boy who came out of poverty and was at the top surrounded by important people and the greats of this world.”
Maria: “They didn’t take care of him. Nobody took care of him, nobody saved him. And he was the most beautiful thing we had.”
Club de Gimnasia y Esgrima La Plata
“I heard about the death from my mom, and I couldn’t believe it, I thought it was fake news. I saw journalists who were broken by the news. He is a player who represents a lot to everyone. He made the name of Argentina known to everyone.”
“The closest I ever got to him was when I was a kid. I was in the stadium and he came to kick a corner, and I got him as close as I have you here. How can you not be excited about that? He gave joy to the country at a time when the country had no joy. Times when it was difficult to put a plate on the table, and he made you have an equal smile, to celebrate with your family. He is criticized for things, but as he said: ‘I wanted to be an example in soccer. If you want examples in life, look at your homes, not me.’”
Ivan Ezequiel Rodriguez, 30
“With the Maradonian Church, the best tributes to Diego, I did them in life. To speak well of him with the world, to take him to the top.”
Hector Armando Mansilla
“I played with and against Maradona, here in Fiorito. I met him when I was 5 or 6 years old. Luckily, when he was 15 years old, they took him out of the slum. When I found out, I locked myself in my room. I felt that I was not going to see him anymore. For the neighborhood he represents everything, the best.”
Juan Roberto Arias, 63
“I’ve known him since school because he was with my brother. I was a little older. He played with us when he was 15 years old. There were many good kids here and in many neighborhoods in the area. Many who could be worth millions at that time. I realize how proud I was to know him. I’m still a little bit on the moon. I can’t believe it yet. He represents Fiorito as a soccer player but he left when he was 15 years old and thanks to God and his efforts he never stepped on mud again.”
These interviews were edited and condensed.
Rafer Johnson, who carried the American flag into Rome’s Olympic Stadium in August 1960 as the first Black captain of a United States Olympic team and went on to win gold in a memorable decathlon duel, bringing him acclaim as the world’s greatest all-around athlete, died on Wednesday at his home in the Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles.
A family friend, Michael Roth, confirmed the death to The Associated Press. No cause was given. Sources differ on whether Johnson was 85 or 86.
Johnson never competed after that decathlon triumph. He became a good-will ambassador for the United States and a close associate of the Kennedy family, taking a leadership role in the Special Olympics, which were championed by Eunice Kennedy Shriver, and joining Robert F. Kennedy’s entourage during Kennedy’s presidential campaign in 1968. He was remembered especially for helping to wrestle the senator’s assassin to the ground in Los Angeles in 1968.
Johnson’s national profile was largely molded at the 1960 Olympics, one of the most celebrated in the history of the Games, a moment when a host of African-American athletes burst triumphantly onto the world stage. Muhammad Ali, known then as Cassius Clay, captured boxing gold in the light-heavyweight division. Wilma Rudolph swept to victory in the women’s 100- and 200-meter dashes and combined with her Tennessee State teammates for gold in the 4-x-100 relay. Oscar Robertson helped take the United States basketball team to a gold medal.
Johnson’s narrow decathlon victory over C.K. Yang of Taiwan and U.C.L.A., a good friend, provided a thrilling moment in its own right.
Johnson, a 25-year-old graduate of U.C.L.A. and a chiseled 6 feet 3 inches and 200 pounds, was the favorite going into the two-day decathlon, a 10-event test of versatility, strength, speed and endurance that included sprints, high hurdles, pole-vaulting, the high jump and broad jump, the javelin and discus throws, and the 1,500-meter run.
He had won silver in the decathlon at the 1956 Melbourne Olympics, finishing behind Milt Campbell of the U.S., who turned to pro football afterward. He had bested Vasily Kuznetsov of the Soviet Union at a meet at Lenin Stadium in Moscow in 1958, inspiring spectators to put aside Cold War issues and cheer his achievement. And he scored a world-record 8,683 points in the decathlon at the 1960 Olympic track and field trials in Oregon.
But he faced a stiff challenge in Rome from the 27-year-old Yang, who was representing Formosa, the Olympic designation at the time for Taiwanese athletes. Both were trained by Elvin Drake, known as Ducky, the U.C.L.A. track and field coach.
The decathlon duel was decided in its final event, the 1,500 meters, in which Yang was especially strong. Johnson, leading on points, didn’t have to win the event to capture the gold medal, but he did need to finish within 10 seconds of Yang.
“I planned to stick with him like a buddy in combat,” Johnson told The Los Angeles Times in 1990. “I had one other advantage, and I don’t think C.K. knew this at the time. This was my last decathlon. I was prepared to run as fast as I had to in this last race of my life.”
Yang, who died in 2007, recalled, “I knew he would never let go of me unless he collapsed.” Johnson finished 1.2 seconds behind Yang, good enough to capture gold, with Yang getting silver and Kuznetsov capturing bronze.
Johnson later received the 1960 Sullivan Award as America’s leading amateur athlete. After that, he embarked on new chapters in his life.
He met Robert Kennedy at an awards ceremony soon after the Rome Games and became part of the senator’s campaign for the 1968 Democratic presidential nomination.
He was escorting a pregnant Ethel Kennedy through a crowd of supporters at the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles on June 5, 1968 — moments after her husband had claimed victory in the California Democratic primary — when Kennedy was fatally shot by Sirhan Sirhan, a Palestinian immigrant who had been angry at Kennedy for his support of Israel.
Johnson and his fellow Kennedy supporter Roosevelt Grier, the former star defensive tackle for the Giants and the Los Angeles Rams, helped subdue Sirhan.
“My hand clamped down on the weapon,” Johnson recalled in his memoir, “The Best That I Can Be” (1998, with Philip Goldberg). “Rosey’s hand came down on mine. With a dozen others pushing and shoving, we forced Sirhan onto a steam table, then to the floor. I twisted Sirhan’s fingers to free up the weapon.”
ImageCredit…Bettmann Archive/Getty Images
Rafer Lewis Johnson was born on Aug. 18 in either 1934 or 1935 in Hillsboro, Texas, south of Dallas. His family briefly lived in Dallas and then escaped segregation by moving to the town of Kingsburg in California’s agricultural San Joaquin Valley, where his father, Lewis, held jobs in food processing.
Johnson excelled in football, basketball and baseball as well as track and field in high school, but he focused on the decathlon, inspired by seeing the Olympic gold-medalist Bob Mathias in action in nearby Tulare, Calif.
He entered U.C.L.A. in 1954 and played for the renowned coach John Wooden’s basketball team there while training for decathlons. He also became president of the student body.
His Olympic triumph behind him, Johnson visited many countries in the early 1960s as a good-will ambassador for the State Department. He acted on television shows and in Hollywood movies, including “Wild in the Country” (1961) with Elvis Presley and Tuesday Weld. He was also a sports broadcaster in Los Angeles.
In 1968, Eunice Kennedy Shriver, a driving force in the creation of the Special Olympics for people with intellectual and physical disabilities, drew Johnson into the organization. He became a founder of its Southern California chapter and was later named its chairman. He also did promotional work for Hershey, Reebok and other companies.
Johnson and wife, Elizabeth, had two children, Josh and Jennifer Johnson-Jordan, who was a member of the U.S. women’s beach volleyball team in the 2000 Sydney Olympics. His brother, Jim, was a cornerback for the San Francisco 49ers and was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame. Complete information about survivors was not immediately available.
ImageCredit…David McNew/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images
Johnson’s final moment in the Olympic spotlight came when he climbed a precarious 99 steps at the Los Angeles Coliseum to light the caldron for the 1984 Games.
“I was, in a sense, an Olympian again, preparing to will my body to do something exceptional,” he wrote in his memoir. “Was I concerned about making it to the top of the stairs? Yes. Was I thinking about whether I might trip or fall? Yes. Did I have any doubt that I would come through? No.”