Messi primed to thwart Atletico’s title ambitions

It has been almost 20 years since the Spanish capital’s second club mounted a genuine challenge for the La Liga crown as Barca and Real Madrid, the world’s two richest teams by income, have shared the spoils apart from brief flurries of success from Valencia and Deportivo La Coruna.

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Last season’s third place was the best Atletico had managed since they won a league and King’s Cup double in 1996 and they even spent two seasons in the second division at the start of the millennium.

Current coach Diego Simeone, a former Argentina midfielder who was in the 1996 team, has revived memories of those glory days since he took over at the end of 2011, honing a mean defence and getting the best out of players like forward Diego Costa and midfielder Koke.

Atletico, the King’s Cup holders, have won all their matches at their Calderon stadium this season apart from the first leg of the Spanish Super Cup in August when they drew 1-1 with Barca.

Victory on Saturday (1900 GMT) would put them three points clear of the Catalan giants with half the season played, while Atletico’s city rivals Real Madrid are five points behind in third and play at Espanyol on Sunday (1800).

Koke, who earned a call-up to the Spain squad last year, has played a key role in Atletico’s resurgence, developing a lethal partnership with Costa and netting some important goals himself, including the winner in Saturday’s 1-0 victory at Malaga.

However, beating Barca to head the standings at the halfway stage of the campaign would be a mere “anecdote” as what counted was the state of play at the climax of the season in May, he warned on Wednesday.

“It is irrelevant if you win this match if in the end you have not achieved your objectives,” he told a news conference that coincided with his 22nd birthday.

PAIN FREE

One man who will be itching to spoil Atletico’s party is World Player of the Year Messi, who came off the bench and scored twice on his return from injury in Wednesday’s 4-0 last 16, first leg success at home to Getafe in the Cup.

Messi was given a rousing ovation by the adoring home fans when he replaced Andres Iniesta in the 64th minute at the Nou Camp, the Argentina forward’s first appearance since straining a thigh muscle in November.

The injury was the latest in a string of problems that dogged him during 2013 but he said he was now “free of pain” and full of desire to help Barca in their bid for La Liga, Champions League and King’s Cup glory.

“I am as excited as ever,” he told Barca’s TV channel after the Getafe game, adding that he would consult coach Gerardo Martino and club medical staff to decide if he can start against Atletico.

“Before I had got used to playing with pain and today… I felt very good physically,” the 26-year-old said.

“Beyond the injuries I just want to play again. If I can be in the team (on Saturday) I will be there.”

Real have their King’s Cup last 16, first leg at home to Osasuna to negotiate later on Thursday before they travel to Barcelona to face mid-table Espanyol, while Monday’s game sees European hopefuls Villarreal, in sixth, hosting fifth-placed Real Sociedad (2100).

(Editing by John O’Brien)

Aussie tennis stars sweat on Open draw

Local tennis stocks are at a nine-year high heading into next week’s Australian Open but, like the dollar, threaten to crash at any time.

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Such as at Friday’s draw when long-time blue-chip performer Lleyton Hewitt and volatile speculator Bernard Tomic will be very much at the mercy of the tennis gods despite hitting their straps on the eve of the season’s first grand slam.

Hewitt, fresh off his Brisbane International final triumph over four-time champion Roger Federer, and Tomic, into the semi-finals in his title defence at the Sydney International are both unseeded.

Australia’s two big men’s hopes could conceivably run smack bang into world No.1 Rafael Nadal, three-time defending champion Novak Djokovic or other front-line contenders Andy Murray or Federer in the first round at Melbourne Park.

Samantha Stosur, through to the last four at the Hobart International, is Australia’s only seed in the singles events this year, at No.17 in the women’s event.

The 2011 US Open champion has yet to venture beyond the fourth round in 11 visits to Melbourne and, after falling outside the top 10 for the first time since 2010, Stosur will also be hoping for some luck in the draw.

Without a top-eight seeding, Stosur could potentially meet world No.1 and raging title favourite Serena Williams in the first week.

With some good fortune, Australia’s three stars could all go deep after displaying some strong form in the lead-up.

Despite her well-documented home struggles, Stosur is seeded to make the title match in Hobart which, technically, would be the Queenslander’s fourth successive tournament final.

The 29-year-old reached three straight finals in Osaka, Moscow – where she lifted the Kremlin Cup – and Sofia to complete 2013 before opening her 2014 campaign at the Hopman Cup exhibition event.

Hewitt has climbed back to 43rd in the world after enjoying his first injury-free run in years, while Tomic has won five of his six matches this summer and revels playing on the big stages in Australia.

Not since 2005 when Hewitt was ranked No.2 in the world and ultimately made the final at Melbourne Park, and Alicia Molik was in the top 10 and charged to the quarter-finals, have Australian hopes been so high entering the Open.

“A lot of the players have been in really good form,” Stosur said on Thursday.

“Maybe that hasn’t happened so collectively for the last couple of years.

“I don’t know why maybe the change but it’s nice to be able to be part of that success and try keep boosting it along.

“I guess so far so good but I’m sure I can speak for all of us and say that we all want to definitely replicate it down in Melbourne.”

All up, Australia will have 15 representatives in the singles at Melbourne Park, with Marinko Matosevic, Matt Ebden, young guns Nick Kyrgios, James Duckworth and fellow wildcards Sam Groth and playoff winner Jordan Thompson also in the men’s draw.

Playoff winner Casey Dellacqua and fellow wildcards Ashleigh Barty, Storm Sanders, Jarmila Gajdosova and Olivia Rogowska join Stosur in the women’s event.

Postecoglou backs gay footballers

Socceroos boss Ange Postecoglou says he hopes gay Australian footballers would feel comfortable disclosing their sexuality if they wanted to.

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“What you want – in any form of life – particularly in our country, is that people feel comfortable to express themselves in any way they want to,” said Postecoglou on Thursday.

“If there is somebody that feels comfortable enough to do that – I don’t think as a society we’re closed-minded about these things.

“From our perspective, it’s about creating an environment that in our sport, in our nation, that allows people to feel comfortable in that space.”

Postecoglou was commenting after retired German international Thomas Hitzlsperger came out, announcing he is gay.

“I am declaring my homosexuality because I want the question of homosexuality in the world of professional sport to be out in the open,” said 31-year-old Hitzlsperger, who was capped 52 times by Germany between 2004 and 2010.

His statement came after he hung up his boots at the end of last season, having plied his trade in Germany, England and Italy with Aston Villa, Everton, Wolfsburg and Lazio among others.

Hitzlsperger said he had decided to come out because it was a good time for him and because he wanted to promote the discussion of homosexuality in professional sport.

“I’ve never been ashamed of the way I am,” he added, although it had not always been easy to cope with some of the comments dished out.

“In England, Germany or Italy, homosexuality is not taken seriously as an issue, at least not in the dressing room.”

His disclosure was met with strong support from the football community, including former teammates and clubs.

Arsenal and German forward Lucas Podolski called Hitzlsperger’s announcement, made in German magazine Die Zeit, “an important sign of our time”.

Ex-England captain Gary Lineker tweeted “Congratulations to Thomas Hitzlsperger on bravely being the first player to have played in the PL to ‘come out'” while former club Aston Villa also gave their support.

US spies ‘can’t keep up with data deluge’

The US National Security Agency is able to collect only a portion of the country’s telephone data because of limited capacity to gather and store it, according to a newspaper report.

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The NSA can collect only 20 to 30 per cent of US telephone activity, The Washington Post reported on Friday.

The explosive growth in mobile phone use is driving the agency’s capacity problem, government officials told the paper, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The agency is working to create databanks to keep up with the daily deluge of electronic information.

In 2006, the NSA had the ability to capture and store almost all telephonic data generated in the United States, the officials said, and the intelligence agency was trying regain that level.

The NSA has been under fire since its bulk collection program was first revealed in June by former NSA contractor Edward Snowden.

On January 17, President Barack Obama announced changes to the NSA’s bulk collection of telephone metadata.

While Obama did not call for the end of bulk data collection, his changes included allowing the NSA to query specific data only when a court had found reasonable suspicion of a connection to a terrorist organisation.

Obama said further queries could extend only two steps beyond the original source, instead of three.

Reforms in the program, however, have not satisfied all interested parties.

Twitter on Friday became the most recent internet company to complain, saying it was pressing the US Justice Department for more transparency on surveillance.

The social media website wants to be able to provide the public greater transparency about the requests for information it receives for national security purposes.

“In light of ongoing revelations about government surveillance, we’ve taken a public stand in support of increased transparency and global government surveillance reform,” the company said in a blog post.

Twitter noted that the US Department of Justice reached an agreement last week allowing limited disclosure of national security requests.

While Twitter said that was a step in the right direction, it did not “provide meaningful or sufficient transparency for the public”.

UK finds 800,000-year-old footprints

Footprints left by ancient humans 800,000 years ago have been found in Britain, the earliest evidence of such markings outside Africa, scientists say.

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Researchers discovered the footprints, which were left by both adults and children, in ancient estuary mud at Happisburgh in Norfolk, eastern England.

The only older footprints found so far are at Laetoli in Tanzania, at about 3.5 million years old, and at Ileret and Koobi Fora in Kenya at about 1.5 million years, they added.

“This is an extraordinarily rare discovery,” said Nick Ashton of the British Museum, who led the research team, which also involved the National History Museum and Queen Mary University London.

The discovery came at an archaeological site that has yielded several previous discoveries of stone tools and fossil bones, including mammoth remains.

The researchers found the prints at low tide when waves washed away much of the beach sand to expose the silt below.

“At first we weren’t sure what we were seeing but as we removed any remaining beach sand and sponged off the seawater, it was clear that the hollows resembled prints, perhaps human footprints, and that we needed to record the surface as quickly as possible before the sea eroded it away,” Ashton said.

The group of early humans that left the footprints appeared to have consisted of at least one male and several smaller people believed to be females and youngsters, the researchers said.

“They are clearly a family group rather than a hunting party,” said Ashton.

The footprints were dated at 800,000 years old partly on the basis of the site’s geological position beneath glacial deposits, but also because the fossils there come from now-extinct types of mammoth and horse and early forms of vole that were alive at that time.

Two Black Caps investigated for drinking

New Zealand Cricket is to investigate the actions of Black Caps squad members Doug Bracewell and Jesse Ryder, who have admitted their involvement in a drinking session the night before the first Test against India.

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Team manager Mike Sandle said he was disappointed by what he understood to have occurred in Auckland on Wednesday night after talking to both players.

“Their behaviour is totally unacceptable the night before a match. We trust the players to make good decisions and the pair have breached this trust,” Sandle said in a short NZC statement.

Sandle said both players confirmed they were out at a bar until the early hours of Thursday morning.

NZC will begin an investigation and won’t comment further on the issue until it is completed, probably early next week.

Pace bowler Bracewell was named 12th man for the Test while Ryder isn’t part of the official New Zealand squad but was named to join the group as cover for batsman Ross Taylor, whose wife is expecting their second child.

Stylish batsman Ryder has left the squad and is playing a Plunket Shield four-day match for Otago in Nelson which started on Thursday.

Bracewell was to play in the same game for Central Districts but a fractured foot injury has ruled him out. NZC said the cause of that injury is part of its investigation.

Both players have a chequered history of off-field behaviour.

In February 2012, they were suspended for one game each after getting into an altercation in a Napier bar following a one-day international against South Africa.

Bracewell, 23, missed all three tests against England at home last season after cutting his foot on glass while cleaning up after a party at his house in Napier.

In November, Bracewell was stood down from a Twenty20 match for Central Districts after returning to the team hotel in the early hours and admitting to drinking.

The 18-Test veteran’s place in the squad could come under pressure ahead of the second Test in Wellington starting on Friday next week, depending on the outcome of the investigation.

Ryder, 29, suffered injury in 2008 when he shoved his hand through a window in a Christchurch bar.

He was suspended for one ODI in 2009 for breaching team protocols in Wellington and received a six-month ban for failing a drug test early last year.

Ryder made his comeback to international cricket in the one-day series against the West Indies this summer after making himself unavailable for nearly two years to address personal issues.

US stocks surge more than 1%

US stocks have surged despite a labour report that said the US economy added far fewer jobs than expected in January.

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The Dow Jones Industrial Average shot up 165.55 points (1.06 per cent) to 15,794.08.

The broad-based S&P 500 gained 23.59 (1.33 per cent) at 1,797.02, while the tech-rich Nasdaq Composite Index advanced 68.74 (1.69 per cent) to 4,125.86.

The gains came after the Labor Department said the economy added 113,000 jobs in January, far below the 175,000 forecast.

Analysts said there were some positive aspects to the report, such as the rise in labour force participation.

Some analysts said the unusually severe winter weather in January may have been a factor in the tepid jobs growth.

“In general, it was a disappointing jobs report,” said Jack Ablin, chief investment officer at BMO Private Bank.

“But if you buy the argument that the polar vortex has had an impact on the economy then it’s probably a pretty good jobs report.”

Apple rose 1.4 per cent after chief executive Tim Cook said in an interview that the company bought back $US14 billion ($A15.67 billion) in stock in the wake of a disappointing earnings report released in late January that hit Apple’s valuation.

Citigroup shares shot up 2.3 per cent on a bullish research note by Bank of America, which said worries about the bank’s weak fourth-quarter earnings and exposure to emerging markets were excessive.

Internet travel company Expedia got a big lift from fourth-quarter earnings of 92 US cents per share, handily beating estimates of 86 US cents.

Shares jumped 14.3 per cent.

Expedia’s results also boosted other online travel companies, including TripAdvisor (+9.5 per cent) and Priceline (+5.0 per cent).

Twitter, which lost nearly one-fourth of its value on Thursday on a disappointing earnings outlook, enjoyed a partial recovery, with shares advancing 8.6 per cent.

But one tech company that suffered on Friday was LinkedIn, which projected 2014 revenues of $US2.02-$US2.05 billion, well below the $US2.16 billion expected by analysts.

Shares tumbled 6.2 per cent.

Gap Inc jumped 5.8 per cent on data that showed it bucked the trend of weak retail sales during the year-end holiday shopping season. Fourth-quarter comparable sales rose one per cent.

The retailer forecast earnings of 65-66 US cents per share for the fourth quarter, more than the 61 US cents projected by analysts.

Bond prices were mixed. The yield on the 10-year US Treasury slipped to 2.67 per cent from 2.70 per cent, while the 30-year rose to 3.67 per cent from 3.65 per cent. Bond prices and yields move inversely.

US president signs $US950bn farm bill

US President Barack Obama has signed an agriculture bill worth more than $US950 billion ($A1.

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06 trillion), saying the rare product of co-operation in Washington DC was an example of how the gridlocked US political capital should work.

Obama travelled to Michigan to highlight the measure, which he compared to a Swiss army knife because it had so many different functions as it expands US food exports, broadens conservation and safeguards water resources.

Obama said the new law did not include everything he would like – and admitted Republican leaders felt the same way.

“But it’s a good sign that Democrats and Republicans in congress were able to come through with this bill, break the cycle of short-sighted, crisis-driven, partisan decision-making and actually get this stuff done,” Obama said.

Prospects for more significant legislation in Obama’s second term seem less bright though, as hopes for comprehensive immigration reform have suffered a setback amid grassroots conservative opposition and Republicans in the House of Representatives are blocking much of the president’s agenda.

The $US954.6 billion bill passed after a political battle lasting more than three years over plans to cut agricultural subsidies and Republican efforts to reduce the size of the food stamp program which provides nutrition to poor families.

The bill slashed $US23 billion from the deficit over 10 years, but some congressional conservatives opposed the measure for not cutting enough.

Several Democrats also opposed the bill, arguing cuts to the food stamp program – which would reduce aid to 850,000 families, according to government estimates – went too deep.

But Obama said that the efforts of Democrats meant that many of those most in need would still get help.

“My position has always been that any farm bill I sign must include protections for vulnerable Americans… this bill does that.”

Marshall ignores rugby advice from Folau

Proud playmaker Benji Marshall will ignore advice from Waratahs rival Israel Folau and persist with trying to make it at five-eighth for the Auckland Blues this Super Rugby season.

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After the Waratahs’ 33-12 trial win over the Blues at Allianz Stadium on Friday night, cross-code superstar Folau encouraged Marshall to make life easier on himself and try his hand at fullback.

In his his debut season last year, Folau said he found fullback to be the ideal position for learning the game and knowing when he should inject himself.

A few months later he was already the Wallabies’ best player.

However, Marshall comes from a different pedigree.

Even though transitioning from the No.6 of the NRL to rugby’s No.10 must rank as one of the toughest assignments a convert could face, Marshall won’t be giving up after one uninspiring display.

He directed the Wests Tigers around the field from the age of 18 and played 25 Tests as master and commander for New Zealand.

There were some spectacular days, and plenty of bad ones.

But as far as Marshall’s concerned, once a general always a general.

“I want a challenge at 10,” he said.

“It’s been a rapid development considering I was given no chance. I’m happy with where I’m building it.

“(Folau) had some good advice. He thinks I should play fullback but … I like directing the team around.

“The expectation has been massive but you’ve just got to embrace the expectation and try and get better.”

Marshall said he felt less lost against the Waratahs than he did in his first outing against the Hurricanes, with friends and family making him feel back at home at the SFS.

But he admits old habits die hard.

The 28-year-old said he was guilty of playing too much like a league five-eighth against the Waratahs, and has realised that won’t cut it in Super Rugby.

“The biggest thing is having a clear mind to learning new things,” he said.

“I really learned (last night) … I feel if I keep learning with every game, that’s what it’s all about.

“The way we pass in league going to the line and trying to put people through holes … sometimes you’ve got to be able to pass and then clean rucks out and not fade at the back.

“That’s a big habit that I’ve had. Running and catching the ball instead of standing still.

“I played a little bit too flat at times.”

Sochi opener gives nod to Russian culture

If you’re wondering about some of the Russian culture featured on Friday in the opening ceremony of the Sochi Olympics, here’s a guide to the history, literature and art that made up a big part of the show.

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WAR AND PEACE

For most, this enormous book is more doorstopper than showstopper. But many Russians, who grew up reading Leo Tolstoy’s epic saga in school, know the story and its most famous scene – Natasha Rostova’s first ball – by heart.

Bolshoi Theater prima ballerina Svetlana Zakharova played Rostova, a young debutante in 19th-century Russia who is desperate to be asked to dance at her first ball. It’s love at first sight when the handsome Andrei Bolkonsky, played by Danilo Korusnetsev of St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theater, approaches.

But their love proves cursed: Prince Bolkonsky is later injured on the battlefield by Napoleon’s invading army, and eventually dies in Natasha’s arms.

RUSSIA’S AVANT GARDE

The ceremony highlighted the young artists who took the country by storm after the Bolshevik Revolution in 1917. Breaking away from what they called the decadence of traditional painting, the group pioneered a style influenced by industrial design and communist ideology.

The show made references to Kazimir Malevich, whose angular, almost sculpture-like paintings and famous black square were a loud rebuke to traditional painting. It featured Alexander Rodchenko, a groundbreaking photographer most famous for his dramatic pronouncement that “Painting is dead,” and El Lissitzky, who pioneered propaganda as art.

After Stalin came to power in the 1920s and started to crack down on the arts, many of the country’s energetic young artists fled the country or were killed.

UNCLE STYOPA

There couldn’t have been a better part for former boxing heavyweight champion Nikolai Valuev, who towers at 2.16 meters, to play then the giant police officer Stepan Stepanov – Uncle Styopa for short.

Uncle Styopa is one of the country’s most beloved children’s tale characters, with the steel jaw and thick neck of most Soviet-era heroes.

In the ceremony, he walks around town punishing neighborhood hooligans, helping lost children find their mothers, and even saving a hardened Russian babushka, who is standing on an enormous chunk of ice doing her laundry when it breaks off and floats down the river.

Uncle Styopa was also a winter athlete in the show, dazzling fans by dashing to first place in a speedskating race. At the finish line, a little girl clambers to the top of airplane stairs so that she can reach up and hand Styopa her teddy bear as a prize.

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS

Russia has long prided itself on its contribution to classical music and dance, and so the fanfare wouldn’t be complete without a rendition of Swan Lake, Pyotr Tchaikovsky’s famous classic. The performance by Mariinsky Ballet dancer Diana Vishneva took a modern turn, illuminated with LED lights.

Anna Netrebko, a renowned operatic soprano, sang the national anthem, accompanied by the Russian State Symphony Orchestra, conducted by the shaggy-haired Yuri Bashmet, one of Putin’s most avid admirers.

Pellegrini hits back at Mourinho

Manchester City manager Manuel Pellegrini on Friday took aim at Jose Mourinho as he ridiculed the Chelsea manager’s claim that the London team are the “little horse” in the title race.

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Mourinho’s side drew level with second-placed City thanks to a 1-0 victory at Eastlands on Monday, but afterwards the Portuguese coach said Chelsea were still third favourites for the Premier League crown behind Pellegrini’s men and leaders Arsenal.

Pellegrini has rarely engaged in verbal jousting since moving to City in the close-season, but the Chilean was quick to poke fun at Mourinho’s mind games, while pointing out Chelsea have been one of the one of heaviest spenders of recent times so should accept the pressure of having to win trophies.

“Maybe it is a small horse if the manager thinks like that,” Pellegrini said. “It can be a little horse, but very rich.

“This is the team that has spent most money in the last 10 years, is the team that spent most money this year and the team that spent the most money in the transfer window. So, little – but rich.”

Pellegrini has a rivalry with Mourinho dating from when the Chelsea boss succeeded him at Real Madrid in 2010.

Mourinho went on to say on Monday that City remain the title favourites, but Pellegrini insists Chelsea cannot be written off.

“He has shown in the last two games (against us) he has a strong team with some great players,” Pellegrini added.

“I think he is favourite. He thinks if he wins he will have the merits but if he loses, he does not have responsibility.

“It is the way he acts. Everyone acts the way he thinks is better for the team.

“I think it will be very close with Chelsea and Arsenal. Arsenal are the favourites because they have two points’ lead in the table.

“Of the 24 games we have played, Arsenal have been top of the table for 16 or 17. They have an important advantage.

“I am sure the three will fight to the end for the title.”

Opening ceremony fails to follow Putin’s script

But a technical glitch and the choice of an athlete who tweeted what was widely seen as a racist photo of U.

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S. President Barack Obama to light the Olympic flame meant it ended up stoking controversy.

Efforts by state television to conceal from viewers the moment when one of the five rings that make up the Olympic Games symbol failed to light up, and complaints by a singer that her music was used without permission, made matters even worse.

The event’s creative director, Konstantin Ernst, tried to portray it as business as usual after the technical fault meant the ring could not be illuminated by fireworks and a snowflake appeared instead. But his efforts fell flat.

“No normal person would get distracted by one snowflake that did not open from the story that is being told over two and half hours,” said Ernst, who also runs a state television channel.

“Zen Buddhists have a saying that if you have the perfectly polished ball, leave a nick in it so you can understand just how perfectly it is polished. The (opening of the) rings was the simplest technical thing. That came first and everything else went off, and this was that nick.”

Ernst also shrugged off a question from a reporter about state television’s decision to switch to a recording of the rehearsal of the opening ceremony when it became clear the fifth ring would not be illuminated.

The decision was natural and unexceptional, he said, because the most important thing was to present the world with a good performance.

Putin may not be quite so zen. He has staked his reputation on staging a safe and successful Games, despite threats from Islamist militants to disrupt them, and wants to use the Olympics to show how far Russia has come since Soviet times.

His hopes that the international criticism – particularly over a law banning the spread of “gay propaganda” among minors – will end when the sporting action begins may now be unfounded.

DOCTORED PHOTO OF OBAMA

The choice of former figure skater Irina Rodnina as one of two people to light the Olympic flame, a great honour and sign of respect, might once have seemed straightforward.

Three times an Olympic champion, she is a national hero. Rodnina is also a member of parliament who is loyal to Putin.

But she caused an outcry in the United States last September by re-tweeting a photoshopped picture that showed Obama chewing and a hand waving a banana in front of him.

The U.S. ambassador to Moscow, Michael McFaul, accused Rodnina at the time of “outrageous behaviour, which only brings shame to her parliament and country”.

Rodnina said she had been sent the picture by friends in the United States and added: “Freedom of speech is freedom of speech, and you should answer for your own hang-ups.”

Ernst deflected criticism of the choice of Rodnina by saying she was a great sportswoman and said he had not read the tweet.

He also defended the choice of the other five people who carried the Olympic torch at the ceremony. They included Alina Kabayeva, a gold medallist in rhythmic gymnastics whom Russian media have linked with Putin so often that the Kremlin last year issued a denial that he had secretly married her.

Also among the stars who carried the torch in the state-of-the-art Fisht stadium was Yelena Isinbayeva, whose comments defending the “gay propaganda” law last summer prompted accusations abroad that she was homophobic.

Because both have been the cause of controversy so recently, the choice of Isinbayeva and Rodnina could be seen in Washington as a snub to Obama, who is not attending the Games and sent a delegation including officials who are gay.

Although much criticised abroad, the “gay propaganda” law is popular among Russians and was part of Putin’s efforts to rally support among socially conservative voters after protests.

Standing up to the West goes down well with voters and is a trump card which the former KGB spy plays often.

The other sour note was sounded by Zemfira, a popular Russian singer who said one of her songs had been used without her agreement.

“It was a really great ceremony… But what is this crap? Do you do whatever you want?” she asked of Ernst.

In Russia, the ceremony is likely to be hailed as a success and the Western media coverage seen as exaggerated.

“In my opinion, to me as a journalist, it is even insulting because it is not how journalists should do their job,” veteran television journalist Vladimir Pozner told Reuters. “It is almost like Soviet propaganda.”

(Additional reporting by Alissa de Carbonnel; Editing by Ken Ferris)

Go easy on Bieber: Russell Brand

Russell Brand has urged critics to ease up on troubled young star Justin Bieber following the death of actor Philip Seymour Hoffman.

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The British comic, who is a former drug addict, has written a candid piece on addiction in the aftermath of Hoffman’s death over the weekend following a suspected heroin overdose.

Brand cites Bieber as an example of a young star who could easily fall into the trap of drug troubles, and insists addicts need help not criticism in order to survive.

“Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death was not on the bill. If it’d been the sacrifice of Miley Cyrus or Justin Bieber, that we are invited to anticipate daily, we could delight in the Faustian justice of the righteous dispatch of a fast-living, sequin-spattered denizen of eMpTyV (bad music TV)…” he wrote in an article for Britain’s The Guardian.

“We are tacitly instructed to await their demise with necrophilic sanctimony. When the end comes… it will be deserved… When we reflect on Bieber’s Louis Vuitton embossed, Lamborghini cortege it is easy to equate addiction with indulgence and immorality. The great actor (Hoffman) dying alone denies us this required narrative prang.”

Brand adds: “The reason I am so non-judgmental of Hoffman or Bieber and so condemnatory of the pop cultural tinsel… is that I am a drug addict in recovery, so like any drug addict I know exactly how Hoffman felt when he ‘went back out’…

“What it also clearly demonstrates is that we are a culture that does not know how to treat its addicts. Would Hoffman have died if this disease were not so enmeshed in stigma?…

“The troubling message behind Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death, which we all feel without articulating, is that it was unnecessary and we know that something could be done.”

Bieber recently found himself in the headlines when he was arrested for driving under the influence in Florida. Officials reportedly found marijuana and prescription drug Xanax in his system.