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Russian Actor and Director Making 1st Movie in Space Back on Earth

A Russian actor and a film director making the first move film in space returned to Earth on Sunday after spending 12 days on the International Space Station (ISS).

The Soyuz MS-18 space capsule carrying Russian ISS crew member Oleg Novitskiy, Yulia Peresild and Klim Shipenko landed in a remote area outside the western Kazakhstan at 07:35 a.m. (0435 GMT), the Russian space agency Roscosmos said. 

The crew had dedocked from the ISS three hours earlier.

Russian state TV footage showed the reentry capsule descending under its parachute above the vast Kazakh steppe, followed by ground personnel assisting the smiling crew as they emerged from the capsule.

However, Peresild, who is best known for her role in the 2015 film “Battle for Sevastopol,” said she had been sorry to leave the ISS.

“I’m in a bit of a sad mood today,” the 37-year-old actor told Russian Channel One after the landing.

“That’s because it had seemed that 12 days was such a long period of time, but when it was all over, I didn’t want to bid farewell,” she said.

Last week 90-year-old U.S. actor William Shatner – Captain James Kirk of “Star Trek” fame – became the oldest person in space aboard a rocketship flown by billionaire Jeff Bezos’s company Blue Origin.

Peresild and Shipenko have been sent to Russian Star City, the home of Russia’s space program on the outskirts of Moscow for their post-flight recovery which will take about a week, Roscosmos said.

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Actors of Indian Descent Proud to Lead Broadway’s ‘Aladdin’

As kids growing up in different states, Shoba Narayan and Michael Maliakel shared a love of one favorite film — “Aladdin.” Both are of Indian descent, and in the animated movie, they saw people who looked like them.

That shared love has gone full-circle this month as Narayan and Maliakel lead the Broadway company of the musical “Aladdin” out of the pandemic, playing Princess Jasmine and the hero from the title, respectively.

“Growing up, there was such little South Asian and Middle Eastern representation in the American media, and Princess Jasmine was really all I had. She was a huge role model to me as someone who was intelligent and strong and independent and beautifully curious, and that’s who I wanted to be,” says Narayan, who grew up in Pennsylvania.

The pair arrived at “Aladdin” in very different ways. Maliakel is making his Broadway debut, but Narayan is a musical theater veteran, having made her Broadway debut in “Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812” and touring with “Hamilton” as Eliza Hamilton.

She was in “Wicked” as Nessarose when the pandemic shut down Broadway in March 2020. Her agent called in April with the prospect of auditioning for Jasmine. She sang “A Whole New World” over Zoom on gallery mode, pretending to be on a magic carpet. “It was a very unique experience,” she says, laughing.

Disney producers flew her to New York to meet face-to-face and go through the material again. Narayan was asked to read with different Aladdin potential actors. She got the gig: “I went from a wicked witch to a Disney princess. Can’t complain.”

Maliakel, a native of New Jersey, came from the world of opera, a baritone who studied at Johns Hopkins University and the 2014 winner at the National Musical Theatre Competition. He trained his voice to be flexible, waiting for the right window to open.

“I didn’t really see a lot of people doing what I wanted to do in the world,” he says. “There just wasn’t a whole lot of representation. So it’s really hard to imagine yourself in those scenarios when you have no one to look up to as a role model or an example of how it could be done.”

He played Porter and understudied Raoul in a national tour of “The Phantom of the Opera,” which ended its run in Toronto just before the pandemic hit.

“I always dreamed that Broadway might happen someday,” he says, laughing. “I’m just kind of dipping my toes into the waters in one of the biggest male roles in the business right now, and it’s kind of surreal.”

Broadway’s “Aladdin” is a musical adaptation of the 1992 movie starring Robin Williams. The musical’s story by Chad Beguelin hews close to the film: A street urchin finds a genie in a lamp and hopes to woo a princess while staying true to his values and away from palace intrigue.

Key Alan Menken songs from the film — including “Friend Like Me,” ″Prince Ali” and “A Whole New World” — are used. The lyricists are the late Howard Ashman, Tim Rice and Beguelin.

The show — and it’s two new leads — had a few performances to celebrate Broadway’s return from the pandemic this fall before it was forced to close for several days when breakthrough COVID-19 cases were detected. The actors say the safety of the cast, crew and audience are paramount and closing was the smart move.

“This is how we keep theater going in the pandemic,” Maliakel says. “The other option is to just not do it at all. And that’s not an option. A week’s worth of lost performances, when we look back on things in a year or so, I think will just be a little blip on the radar.”

They both look back with heart-thumping appreciation at the early performances when they welcomed back theater-starved audiences, who gave the company 3-minute standing ovations just for singing “A Whole New World.”

“It is every brown girl’s dream to be singing that song on an actual flying carpet,” says Narayan. “And the fact that I got to do it on Broadway in the full costume with the lights and the 32-piece orchestra beneath me — oh, my gosh, I really had to hold it together. It was emotional overload for me.”

Maliakel recalls that he and his brothers wore out their VHS cassette version of “Aladdin.” He remembers having lunchboxes, pajamas and bed sheets with the film’s theme. Aladdin was “every little brown kid’s prince.” Now he is that prince.

“Now, finally, to get to get paid to do it on the world’s largest stage — it’s not lost on me how crazy that is,” he says. “The responsibility of my position right now feels really great. This moment sort of feels bigger than me in some ways, and I don’t take that lightly. I think it’s a really exciting time.”

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Enslaved Black Man Created World’s Most Popular Whiskey

Jack Daniel’s is the world’s most popular whiskey brand, but until recently, few people knew the liquor was created by Nathan “Nearest” Green, an enslaved Black man who mentored Daniel.

“We’ve always known,” says Debbie Staples, a great-great-granddaughter of Green’s who heard the story from her grandmother. … “He made the whiskey, and he taught Jack Daniel. And people didn’t believe it … it’s hurtful. I don’t know if it was because he was a Black man.”

But people believe it now — in large part because Brown-Forman Corporation, owner of Jack Daniel’s Tennessee Whiskey, has acknowledged the foundational role Green played in the brand’s development.

“The truth of the matter is, Nearest Green was the first head distiller of Jack Daniels whiskey,” says Matt Blevins, global brand director for Jack Daniels Tennessee Whiskey. “We’re very proud of this story and are very committed to amplifying it and acknowledging that. In the past, we did not amplify it the way that we could have in earlier eras, but we’re about the future and moving forward.”

America’s first-known Black master distiller

The story begins in Lynchburg, Tennessee, current home of the Jack Daniel Distillery. In the mid-1800s, Green’s slaveholders hired him out to a local preacher named Dan Call. Green, who had a reputation as a skilled distiller, made whiskey for Call, using a sugar maple charcoal filtering process that is believed to have originated in West Africa. Daniel, a boy who worked for Call, became Green’s apprentice and learned the special technique that gave the Tennessee whiskey its smooth taste.

After emancipation in 1863, when all enslaved people were freed, Daniel purchased Call’s distillery and hired Green as Jack Daniel Distillery’s first master distiller.

“The best knowledge that we have is that they had a mentor-and-mentee sort of a relationship, and I would say, a friendship,” says Blevins. “The stories that have been passed down [talk] about the care that Jack Daniel took to always acknowledge … the Green family.”

There are no known pictures of Green, but there is one of Daniel with Green’s son, George, sitting next to Daniel, rather than being relegated to the back.

“That photograph shows the respect that they had for one another and for their families,” says Stefanie Benjamin, an assistant professor of tourism management at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville. “To be not only allowed in that photograph, but also positioned in the foreground and sitting right next to Jack Daniels himself.”

Search for the truth

Green’s role in the history of the brand was uncovered by a writer and entrepreneur named Fawn Weaver, who became fascinated by Green’s unheralded contribution to the world’s most popular whiskey. After extensive research, including interviews with Green’s descendants, Weaver shared her documentation with the company.

“I was very pleasantly surprised when they embraced my research and updated their records to reflect that,” Weaver told VOA via email. “I think it said a lot about the character of their company that they moved that quickly to course correct.”

Jack Daniel’s has incorporated Green’s contributions into the official history of the brand, but Weaver has gone a step further. She invested $1 million of her own money to establish Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey, which is now the fastest-growing independent American whiskey brand in U.S. history.

The company’s master distiller is Victoria Eady Butler, Green’s great‐great‐granddaughter.

“Uncle Nearest is the most-awarded American whiskey or bourbon of 2019, 2020 and 2021, and the fact that it is the bloodline of Nearest Green blending and approving what goes into our bottles is something I marvel at regularly,” Weaver says. “Victoria is an absolute natural when it comes to blending, and to watch her work is to see something pretty darn close to perfection.”

Family business

Seven generations of Green’s family have worked at the Jack Daniel Distillery, a tradition that continues today with Staples and two of her siblings. But the Green family did not benefit when the Daniel family sold the Jack Daniel distillery to Brown-Forman for $20 million in 1956.

“Although they [the Green family] were very well off in terms of finances [in the 1800s] in that time, they were not the owners or co-owners of the Jack Daniel distillery,” Benjamin says. “And so, those millions of dollars have been passed down through generations of the Jack Daniel family, and not necessarily the Green family.”

 

Weaver’s Uncle Nearest Premium Whiskey has joined forces with Jack Daniel’s to launch a program that provides support, expertise and resources to African-American entrepreneurs entering the spirits industry.

Staples says her family is thrilled their great-great-grandfather is finally being recognized.

“It’s kind of mind-boggling … and we are so proud,” Staples says. “And to think that from here to Africa, that recipe goes all the way back. And to think that he played such an important role in establishing this company. It sometimes seems unreal. It really does.”

Because of Weaver’s tenacity, Green’s story, although left untold for more than a century, will not be lost to history. But that’s not the case with so many other stories of Black achievement and contributions to the nation.

“Part of telling his story and sharing his legacy is to give credit and to give attention to a person who, if it wasn’t for him, we wouldn’t have the Jack Daniel whiskey as we know it today,” Benjamin says. “It showcases yet another example of how formerly enslaved people, Black people, African American people who have really built this country, are left out of the dominant narrative that we tell.”

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#Metoo, 4 Years In: ‘I’d Like to Think Now, We Are Believed’

To Charlotte Bennett, the new book that arrived at her Manhattan apartment this week — Anita Hill’s “Believing” — was more than just a look at gender violence.

It was a dispatch from a fellow member of a very specific sisterhood — women who have come forward to describe misconduct they suffered at the hands of powerful men.

Bennett’s story of harassment by New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo helped lead to his resignation after an investigation found he’d harassed at least 11 women. And 30 years ago this month, Hill testified before a skeptical Senate Judiciary Committee that Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her.

“I can’t imagine what it was like doing that in 1991,” said Bennett, 26. “I’ve thought about that a lot.”

Hill’s history obviously predates the #MeToo movement, the broad social reckoning against sexual misconduct that reaches its four-year mark this week. But Bennett’s moment is very much a part of it, and she believes #MeToo is largely responsible for a fundamental change in the landscape since 1991, when Hill came forward.

“I’d like to think that now, we are believed,” Bennett said in an interview. “That the difference is, we are not convincing our audience that something happened and trying to persuade them that it impacted us. I would really like to think we’re in a place now where it’s not about believability — and that we don’t have to apologize.”

But for Bennett, a former health policy aide in the Cuomo administration, what emboldened her to come forward — and bolster the claims of an earlier accuser — was also the feeling that she was part of a community of survivors who had each other’s back.

“I was really scared to come forward,” Bennett said. “But something that reassured me even in that moment of fear was that there were women before me … (it wasn’t) Charlotte versus the governor, but a movement, moving forward. And I am one small event and one small piece of reckoning with sexual misconduct, in workplaces and elsewhere.”

 

There’s evidence Bennett is not alone in feeling a shift. Four years after actor Alyssa Milano sent her viral tweet asking those who’d been harassed or assaulted to share stories or just reply “Me too,” following the stunning revelations about mogul Harvey Weinstein, most Americans think the movement has inspired more people to speak out about misconduct, according to a new poll.

About half of Americans — 54% — say they personally are more likely to speak out if they’re a victim of sexual misconduct, according to the poll from The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research. And slightly more, 58%, say they would speak out if they witnessed it.

 

Sixty-two percent of women said they are more likely to speak out if they are a victim of sexual misconduct as a result of recent attention to the issue, compared to 44% of men. Women also are more likely than men to say they would speak out if they are a witness, 63% vs 53%.

Sonia Montoya, 65, of Albuquerque, used to take the sexist chatter in stride at the truck repair shop where she’s worked as the office manager — the only woman — for 17 years. But as news broke in 2016 about the crude way presidential candidate Donald Trump spoke about women, she realized she’d had enough. She demanded respect, prompting changes from her colleagues that stuck as the #MeToo movement took hold.

“It used to be brutal, the way people talked (at work). It was raw,” said Montoya, a poll participant who describes herself as an independent voter and political moderate. “Ever since this movement and awareness has come out, the guys are a lot more respectful and they think twice before they say certain things.”

Justin Horton, a 20-year-old EMT in Colorado Springs who attends a local community college, said he saw attitudes start to change as the #MeToo movement exploded during his senior year of high school.

He thinks it’s now easier for men like him to treat women with respect, despite a culture that too often objectifies them. And he hopes people realize that men can be sexually harassed as well.

“I feel like it’s had a lasting impact,” he said. “I feel like people have been more self-aware.”

Close to half of Americans say the recent attention to sexual misconduct has had a positive impact on the country overall — roughly twice the number that say it’s been negative, 45% vs. 24%, the poll shows. As recently as January 2020, Americans were roughly split over the impact of the movement on the country.

Still, there are signs the impact has been unequal, with fewer Americans seeing positive change for women of color than for women in general. That dovetails with frequent criticism that the #MeToo movement has been less inclusive of women of color.

“We haven’t moved nearly enough” in that area, #MeToo founder Tarana Burke told The Associated Press in an interview last month.

The AP-NORC Poll also showed generational differences: More Americans under 30 said they’re more likely to speak out if they are a victim, compared with older adults, 63% vs. 51%. And 67% of adults under 30 said they were they are more likely to speak out if they witness sexual misconduct, compared with 56% of those older.

There is a price for speaking out. Bennett said Cuomo, despite having resigned, is still not taking true responsibility for his actions, and so her struggle goes on.

“He’s still willing to try and discredit us,” she said. “And I am at a point where I’m exhausted. This has been a horrible experience.”

Bennett has said the 63-year-old Cuomo, among other comments, asked if her experience with sexual assault in college had affected her sex life, asked about her sexual relationships, and said he was comfortable dating women in their 20s. Cuomo denies making sexual advances and says his questions were an attempt to be friendly and sympathetic to her background as a survivor. He’s denied other women’s allegations of inappropriate touching, including an aide who accused him of groping her breast.

How is Bennett doing, two months after the resignation? She replies haltingly: “I’m doing OK. Every day is hard. It’s sad. It takes a piece of you a little bit. But … I would make the same decision every single time. The reason I was in public service was to be a good citizen and give back and do the right thing and contribute. I didn’t see my role like this, but that’s what it turned into. And that’s OK. I’m proud of myself for coming forward, and I will get through it.”

She muses about where the country might be in three more decades.

“I think reflecting on Anita Hill’s experience is a great way to understand how long 30 years is,” she said.

“So what do I feel like the next big change will be? I think it’s just not apologizing for being inconvenient. I could sit here and apologize. But I want to get to a place … where we’re not apologizing, where it’s our job to come forward if we have the means and ability to do so.”

And the #MeToo movement, she said, should be not only a community, not only “a soft landing place” for women who come forward.

“It should it be where leaders come from,” Bennett said. “We know how institutions act. We know the underbelly of these institutions better than anyone. We have a lot of solutions to fix it and we should be at the table.

“It should be OUR table.”

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Shredded Banksy Artwork Sells for $25.4 Million at Auction

A work by British street artist Banksy that sensationally shredded itself just after it sold at auction three years ago fetched almost 18.6 million pounds ($25.4 million) on Thursday — a record for the artist, and close to 20 times its pre-shredded price. 

“Love is in the Bin” was offered by Sotheby’s in London, with a presale estimate of 4 million pounds to 6 million pounds ($5.5 million to $8.2 million). 

After a 10-minute bidding war involving nine bidders in the saleroom, online and by phone, it sold for three times the high estimate to an undisclosed buyer. The sale price of 18,582,000 pounds ($25,383,941) includes an auction-house fee known as a buyer’s premium. 

The piece consists of a half-shredded canvas in an ornate frame bearing a spray-painted image of a girl reaching for a heart-shaped red balloon. 

When it last sold at Sotheby’s in October 2018, the piece was known as “Girl With Balloon.” Just as an anonymous female European buyer made the winning bid — for 1 million pounds ($1.4 million) — a hidden shredder embedded in the frame by Banksy whirred to life, leaving half the canvas hanging from the frame in strips. 

Sotheby’s received some criticism at the time for failing to spot the hidden shredder. But the 2018 buyer decided to go through with the purchase, a decision that was vindicated on Thursday as the work’s price soared. 

The work quickly became one of Banksy’s most famous, and Sotheby’s sent it on tour to cities including New York and Hong Kong before Thursday’s auction. 

Auctioneer Oliver Barker joked that he was terrified to bring down the hammer to end Thursday’s sale. There were jitters among Sotheby’s staff to the last that Banksy had another surprise planned. 

Alex Branczik, Sotheby’s chairman of modern and contemporary art, called the shredding “one of the most ingenious moments of performance art this century.” 

Banksy, who has never confirmed his full identity, began his career spray-painting buildings in Bristol, England, and has become one of the world’s best-known artists. His mischievous and often satirical images include two male police officers kissing, armed riot police with yellow smiley faces and a chimpanzee with a sign bearing the words, “Laugh now, but one day I’ll be in charge.” 

Several of his works have sold for multiple millions at auction. In March, a Banksy mural honoring Britain’s health workers, first painted on a hospital wall, sold for 16.8 million pounds ($23.2 million) at a Christie’s auction, until Thursday a record for the artist. 

“Girl With Balloon” was originally stenciled on a wall in east London and has been endlessly reproduced, becoming one of Banksy’s best-known images. 

 

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Pan African Film Festival Begins in Burkina Faso

The Pan-African Film Festival of Ouagadougou returns to Burkina Faso this weekend after being canceled last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

One Burkinabe director, who has made a film documenting a nursery for the infants of sex workers, talks about the importance of telling African stories through cinema.

Moumouni Sanou is a documentary film director from Bobo Dioulasso, Burkina Faso’s second largest city.

In 2019, he made a film, which is being screened at The Panafrican Film and Television Festival of Ouagadougou, or FESPACO.

Night Nursery follows the story of an older woman who runs a nighttime home for sex workers’ children in Bobo Dioulasso.

Sanou said he wants Night Nursery to humanize sex workers.

Sanou said the idea was to show a different side to sex workers, which is very rarely seen. In Burkina Faso and in the rest of Africa this profession is frowned upon, he said. “But it is also the oldest profession in the world. When we see these girls, people say they are bad people because they are sex workers,” he adds. 

FESPACO has been running since 1969 and this year will feature films from around 30 African countries in its official selection. Cinema professionals and cinephiles travel from all over Africa and beyond to attend.

“FESPACO is one of the biggest African film festivals, and for me to be selected and represent Burkina Faso in the documentary film section will mean this film will be seen by the whole world, not just by Africans,” Sanou said.

Ardiouma Soma, the director of FESPACO, says that this year, the event will also host the African International Film & TV Market — known as MICA — for the first time.

Soma said, because this year the MICA will be held at FESPACO they have invited distributors, whose names he prefers not to mention, to Ouagadougou. He said the market will allow them to find new projects that are in post-production and also films that are already finished but not scheduled for FESPACO, so that they can buy them for their own platforms.

Last year, FESPACO, which usually happens every two years, was cancelled due to COVID-19. Burkina Faso is also in the middle of a conflict with terrorist groups linked to Islamic State and al-Qaida.

Burkina Faso’s culture minister, Élise Foniyama Ilboudo Thiombiano, said it is important the festival goes on.

She said it’s a challenge for Burkinabè to continue to be able to keep the festival going every two years. But it is through cinema we can see the vision of Africans and the people who live on this continent, she adds. She points out that her predecessors all made sure FESPACO remained a focal point for Africa and she intends to do the same. 

As for Sanou, he is hoping Night Nursery could receive an award, and the recognition it needs to win a wide audience.

 

 

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Kenyans Kipruto and Kipyogei Sweep in Boston Marathon Return

Kenya’s Benson Kipruto won the pandemic-delayed Boston Marathon on Monday when the race returned from a 30-month absence with a smaller, socially distanced feel and moved from the spring for the first time in its 125-year history.

Diana Kipyogei won the women’s race to complete the eighth Kenyan sweep since 2000.

Although organizers put runners through COVID-19 protocols and asked spectators to keep their distance, large crowds lined the 26.2-mile course from Hopkinton to Boston as an early drizzle cleared and temperatures rose to the low 60s for a beautiful fall day. 

They watched Kipruto run away from the lead pack as it turned onto Beacon Street with about three miles to go and break the tape in 2 hours, 9 minutes, 51 seconds.

A winner in Prague and Athens who finished 10th in Boston in 2019, Kipruto waited out an early breakaway by American CJ Albertson, who led by as many as two minutes at the halfway point. Kipruto took the lead at Cleveland Circle and finished 46 seconds ahead of 2016 winner Lemi Berhanu; Albertson, who turned 28 on Monday, was 10th, 1:53 back.

Kipyogei ran ahead for much of the race and finished in 2:24:45, 23 seconds ahead of 2017 winner Edna Kiplagat.

Marcel Hug of Switzerland won the men’s wheelchair race earlier despite making a wrong term in the final mile, finishing the slightly detoured route just seven seconds off his course record in 1:08:11.

Manuela Schär, also from Switzerland, won the women’s wheelchair race in 1:35:21.

Hug, who has raced Boston eight times and has five victories here, cost himself a $50,000 course record bonus when he missed the second-to-last turn, following the lead vehicle instead of turning from Commonwealth Avenue onto Hereford Street.

“The car went straight and I followed the car,” said Hug, who finished second in the Chicago Marathon by 1 second on Sunday. “But it’s my fault. I should go right, but I followed the car.”

With fall foliage replacing the spring daffodils and more masks than mylar blankets, the 125th Boston Marathon at last left Hopkinton for its long-awaited long run to Copley Square. 

A rolling start and shrunken field allowed for social distancing on the course, as organizers tried to manage amid a changing COVID-19 pandemic that forced them to cancel the race last year for the first time since the event began in 1897.

“It’s a great feeling to be out on the road,” race director Dave McGillivray said. “Everyone is excited. We’re looking forward to a good day.”

A light rain greeted participants at the Hopkinton Green, where about 30 uniformed members of the Massachusetts National Guard left at 6 a.m. The men’s and women’s wheelchair racers — some of whom completed the 26.2-mile (42.2 km) distance in Chicago a day earlier — left shortly after 8 a.m., followed by the men’s and women’s professional fields. 

“We took things for granted before COVID-19. It’s great to get back to the community and it puts things in perspective,” said National Guard Capt. Greg Davis, 39, who was walking with the military group for the fourth time. “This is a historic race, but today is a historic day.”

Kenya’s Lawrence Cherono and Worknesh Degefa of Ethiopia did not return to defend their 2019 titles, but 13 past champions and five Tokyo Paralympic gold medal winners were in the professional fields.

Held annually since a group of Bostonians returned from the 1896 Athens Olympics and decided to stage a marathon of their own, the race has occurred during World Wars and even the 1918 Spanish flu pandemic. But it was first postponed, then canceled last year, then postponed from the spring in 2021.

It’s the first time the event hasn’t been held in April as part of the Patriots’ Day holiday that commemorates the start of the Revolutionary War. To recognize Indigenous Peoples Day, race organizers honored 1936 and ’39 winner Ellison “Tarzan” Brown and three-time runner-up Patti Catalano Dillon, a member of the Mi’kmaq tribe.

To manage the spread of the coronavirus, runners had to show proof that they’re vaccinated or test negative for COVID-19. Organizers also re-engineered the start so runners in the recreational field of more than 18,000 weren’t waiting around in crowded corrals for their wave to begin; instead, once they get off the bus in Hopkinton they can go.

“I love that we’re back to races across the country and the world,” said Doug Flannery, a 56-year-old Illinois resident who was waiting to start his sixth Boston Marathon. “It gives people hope that things are starting to come back.”

Police were visible all along the course as authorities vowed to remain vigilant eight years after the bombings that killed three spectators and maimed hundreds of others on Boylston Street near the Back Bay finish line.

The race started about an hour earlier than usual, leading to smaller crowds in the first few towns. Wellesley College students had been told not to kiss the runners as they pass the school’s iconic “scream tunnel” near the halfway mark.

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Hollywood Makeover Breathes New Life into Welsh Soccer Club

It has been described as a “crash course in football club ownership” and the two Hollywood stars who bought a beleaguered team in English soccer’s fifth tier with the lofty aim of transforming it into a global force are certainly learning on the job. 

“I’m watching our PLAYERS MOP THE FIELD to continue the game,” read a tweet last week from Rob McElhenney, an American actor and director who was the creator of TV show “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia” and now makes up one half of the new ownership of Wrexham AFC. “I’ve never seen anything like it.” 

The residents of Wrexham have been rubbing their eyes in disbelief for a while. 

It’s nearly a year since McElhenney and Ryan Reynolds, the Canadian-born actor best known for starring in the “Deadpool” movies, completed their out-of-nowhere $2.5 million takeover of Wrexham, a 157-year-old club from Wales that has fallen on such hard times since the turn of the century that its supporters’ trust twice had to save the team from going out of business. 

Once the seed was planted by friends about buying a European soccer team, they sought out advisors to recommend a club that had history, was in a false position, and played a big role in the local community. Wrexham fitted the bill. 

After all, it’s the world’s third oldest professional club that used to attract attendances of 20,000 in the 1970s — and had some big wins in the FA Cup in the 1990s, including over then-English champion Arsenal — but has been languishing at non-league level, where some teams are semi-professional, since 2008. Located in an industrial town of about 65,000 people near the northwest English border, it is not too far from the soccer hotbeds of Liverpool and Manchester. 

To the amazement of everyone involved in English and Welsh soccer, the purchase went through and McElhenney and Reynolds immediately made some big promises: improvements to the stadium, playing squad and leadership structure; a major investment in the women’s team; and to “introduce the club to the world.” They’ve stayed true to their word, making Wrexham stand out at a time when many clubs below the lucrative English Premier League have plunged into financial turmoil because of the effects of the coronavirus pandemic. 

“I remember when it all first broke on the news, it seemed a bit surreal,” Wrexham manager Phil Parkinson told The Associated Press. “But since I’ve spoken to them, you understand how serious they are in terms of making a success of this club and leaving a legacy.” 

Walking through the tunnel and onto the field at the Racecourse Ground, it’s impossible to not notice the giant stand — known as “The Kop” — to the left that is being renovated and currently is covered in a huge red banner. On it are Wrexham’s new sponsors, TikTok, Aviation Gin and Expedia, globally recognized brands that typically have no place at this level of the game. 

Season-ticket sales have nearly trebled, from 2,000 to around 5,800, and attendances have been more than 8,000 for home games, better than many clubs get in the third and fourth tiers and a figure virtually unheard of at non-league level. 

For the first full season under Reynolds and McElhenney, the men’s squad has been enhanced — one player was signed for 200,000 pounds ($270,000), nearly a club record — and there’s a new coach and chief executive with decades of experience working in the English Football League, the three divisions below the Premier League. 

Behind the scenes, there are advisors acting as conduits between the board and the new owners who have held important leadership roles in British soccer: former Liverpool CEO Peter Moore, former Football Association technical director Les Reed and former English Football League CEO Shaun Harvey. 

Meanwhile, the push to put Wrexham “on the map” in world soccer is ongoing. 

It recently became the first non-league team to be included on the popular video game, FIFA. Reynolds (18 million) and McElhenney (700,000) use their large Twitter following to promote the club — and even to comment on the team’s games as an incredulous McElhenney did on Saturday when Wrexham’s match was abandoned because of a waterlogged pitch. 

And in what could perhaps be the biggest game-changer, Wrexham is the subject of an access-all-areas TV documentary charting its transformation under the new ownership. A two-season order of “Welcome to Wrexham” has been placed by American channel FX, with Reynolds and McElhenney the executive directors of what could prove to be something like a real-life version of Emmy Award-winning U.S. comedy “Ted Lasso.” 

FX has said the documentary will explore “the club, the town, and Rob and Ryan’s crash course in football club ownership.” Camera crews have been at the club for much of the past year. 

“Everywhere you go, there’s a camera,” Wrexham captain Luke Young said. “However, many times the crew say, ‘Be yourself and do what’s natural,’ you do to an extent but you then think, ‘Should I say this?’ But they’ve said they’re not going to hang you out to dry.” 

So, is Wrexham simply being used as a vehicle to produce a reality TV show, as some skeptics will say? The scale of the transformation and the money being spent by the new owners on all areas of the club suggests otherwise. 

How long Reynolds and McElhenney stick around is up for debate. But, for now, Wrexham — both the soccer team and the local area — has been given a lift by the presence of famous new owners and the exposure that is providing. Fleur Robinson, the recently appointed CEO, said the club has new members “from Los Angeles to New York” and especially from Philadelphia, the city where McElhenney is from and the inspiration for Wrexham’s new green away uniform. 

The owners have been on chat shows in the U.S., talking about their new project. 

“There hasn’t been a day gone by when the football club hasn’t been mentioned in some way on a national or global scale,” Robinson said. 

Reynolds and McElhenney have promised to come to Wrexham once pandemic-related travel restrictions are lifted and watch the team, which is currently halfway down the National League standings after nine games. 

That visit could be anytime now, and they could be in for quite the reception. 

“There is a such a buzz about town, so this is what everyone is waiting for, to see them,” Robinson said. “They’ve bought a club and not seen it for themselves. I’m sure they are just as excited as the people in Wrexham to come here.” 

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