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Athletes avoid South Korea over virus fears

July 2, 2015

ASHGABAT, Turkmenistan (AP) — As South Korea battles to contain an outbreak of the deadly MERS virus, some foreign athletes are turning their back on the country.

Russian world champion gymnasts and the entire national sports team from the Central Asian nation of Turkmenistan will not compete at this month’s University Games in Gwangju due to the virus, which has killed 33 people in the country so far. More than 2,000 others are in quarantine.

Turkmenistan’s State Sports Committee told The Associated Press on Thursday that it was withdrawing its athletes from the games to protect them from the virus, while Russia is not sending its top rhythmic gymnasts — who are favorites for Olympic gold next year — for the same reason. A reserve team will represent Russia in rhythmic gymnastics instead.

The opening ceremony for the games is Friday, though some competitions began Thursday.

The organizing committee, known as GUOC, insisted athletes would be safe at the games.

“So far, there are no confirmed cases or suspected patients in Gwangju,” organizers said in a statement last week. “The GUOC and the central government are taking safety and security measures seriously to keep Gwangju a MERS-free environment.”

It is another blow to the games, after the North Korean team withdrew last month. That was in protest at the opening of a United Nations human rights monitoring office in the South Korean capital Seoul, South Korean officials said.

The games cover 21 sports and run through July 14.

Update hourly