California wildfires threaten Los Angeles; Russia banned from 2018 Olympics

Today's expression: Crack down, Caught up
Explore more: Lesson #8
December 14, 2017:

A series of deadly wildfires has broken out in Southern California; they have been spread by strong, dry winds. The fires have caused over 200,000 people to evacuate their homes and have come dangerously close to the city's famous Getty Museum. The International Olympic Committee has banned Russia from competing in the 2018 Winter Olympics, although some Russian athletes will be able to compete under a generic Olympic flag. We also review English phrases "crack down on" and "caught up in."

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Welcome to Plain English for Thursday, December 14, 2017. This is a new weekly podcast for English learners who are looking to listen to something just a little bit slower than the normal pace of native speakers. I know from learning Spanish that it can be frustrating to know a lot of words, but not to be able to understand them simply because of how fast people are talking. That’s why we wanted to create this weekly podcast that goes a little slower than normal speed. And to further help your understanding, we post the full, word-for-word transcript on the web site each week. There are even quick translations of difficult words and phrases into Spanish. You can see these transcripts on PlainEnglish.com or by clicking on the link in the show notes.

Each week we talk about two things in the news followed by two English expressions. This week, the topics are the wildfires spreading through Southern California and the International Olympic Committee’s unprecedented decision to ban Russia from the 2018 Winter Olympics. The English phrases that we’ll review toward the end of the program are “crack down on” and “caught up in.”


Wildfires strike Los Angeles area

The Los Angeles area is fighting a series of devastating wildfires that have burned hundreds of homes and displaced over 200,000 people. Wildfires have long been a fact of life in Southern California. It’s a hot part of the United States, without much humidity, and it experiences these dry winds that blow in from the desert. These are the perfect conditions for small brush fires to start and for those to spread rapidly with the help of the wind.

But this year, the wildfires seem to be worse and to affect more people. Wildfire season generally runs until about September or October and California had already faced a difficult wildfire season this year. Northern California, which is famous for its wine production, suffered first, this October. The fires there burned over 200,000 acres and destroyed thousands of buildings, including some at Napa Valley’s famous vineyards.

Now, in December, Southern California is affected. These fires are striking close to, and sometimes inside of, America’s second-largest city, Los Angeles. Dramatic pictures and videos show cars driving through the freeways in residential parts of Los Angeles with fires burning all around and thick smoke hanging in the air. In other areas, entire mountainsides glow orange with pockets of fire.

Several large wildfires are burning at once, and each is given a different name. Some are large, like the one called the Thomas fire, which is burning about 150,000 acres north of LA. Others are burning just a few hundred acres, but are located in more urban areas. The one in Los Angeles burned homes in the Bel-Air neighborhood, shut down one of the region’s busiest highways, and even threatens the Getty Center, the city’s best art museum. Over 200 schools closed in the LA area.

Although California may be more known for the entertainment and technology industries, it is also America’s most important agricultural state. Farmers and ranchers are worried about their avocado orchards, for example, or their livestock. Some horse ranchers let their horses run free, hoping to save them, but many horses didn’t survive.

The dry winds that exacerbate wildfires are called the Santa Ana winds, and they change from day to day. When they’re strong, they can cause fires to spread extremely fast—up to an acre per second.

The effort to fight these fires is dramatic. There are currently over 8,000 firefighters working on containing the damage; they are mostly from California, but some have also come from other US states. Instead of trying to put the fires out directly, they try to contain the spread of the fire, by dumping water and chemicals from helicopters. The helicopters dropping water from the air can only slow the fire’s progress; the firefighters on the ground are the ones who actually stop it from spreading.

This year was particularly bad because, first of all, April to September had been one of the hottest periods in Southern California’s history. The region got a lot of rainfall about a year ago, meaning that a lot of vegetation had been able to grow. But then, the rainfall stopped, so all the new trees, shrubs and bushes dried out, essentially becoming fuel for the dry months of summer and fall. Then, all that’s needed is a spark. And while the spark is sometimes caused by lightning or other natural causes, in the vast majority of cases, it’s caused by humans. Recent wildfires were caused by downed power lines, burning debris, construction or landscaping equipment, or even campfires. A small percentage are also considered arson fires, meaning they were set on purpose.


Russia banned from 2018 Winter Olympics

Russia has been banned from competing in the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. The International Olympic Committee, or the IOC for short, governs the Olympic Games. It conducted an investigation into Russia and found that allegations of a massive, government-sponsored doping program, were in fact all true. As a result, Russia will not be able to compete in the Olympics in 2018 and will have to pay a $15 million fine. The IOC called the doping scheme an “unprecedented attack on the integrity of the Olympic Games and sport.” It is the first time that a country has been banned from the Olympics for doping. Russia had previously admitted that cheating had taken place, but it never admitted that this scheme was sponsored by the government, as the recent IOC report found.

Though Russian athletes will not be able to compete under their own country’s flag, some of the athletes will be able to participate in the Olympics if they can show that they personally were not a part of the cheating at the previous Olympics. They will be acknowledged as being from Russia, but they will compete without a flag or any type of Russian symbolism; if they win a medal, the Olympic anthem will play instead of the Russian national anthem.

Olympic athletes are tested for performance-enhancing drugs regularly, but they key question is, who does the testing? Under Olympic rules, each country tests its own athletes, and then sends the results to the IOC. This is what allowed one country, Russia, to cheat the system for all of its athletes. Whenever an athlete tested positive for drugs, the Russian Olympic Committee would change the records in its database and show that the test had actually been negative, meaning that no drugs were found. To work, this scheme had to involve a lot of people. First, the athletes had to take the performance-enhancing drugs in the first place. Then, the lab technicians and employees had to switch the records in the system. And of course, the Russian Olympic Committee and government agencies had to know in order to set up such a complicated, illegal system.

The IOC report was based in part on evidence and testimony of Russians who had been involved. At least one has fled to the United States and is currently in hiding, under the protection of the United States government. Lawyers for the witnesses said databases and documents show that many thousands of athletes were protected from the official drug-testing procedures. The scheme ran from at least 2011 through 2015.

Other previous reports had independently come to the same conclusion over the years, so it’s not exactly news that this happened. When the cheating program was originally revealed in 2016, the IOC banned a number of Russian athletes from participating in the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, but it did not ban Russia entirely. At the time, some people thought the IOC had not been strict enough in its response to allegations of government-sponsored doping in Russia. The move to ban Russia in 2018 will be a welcome development for those who want to crack down harder on doping in sports.

It’s not clear what Russia will do in response. They may choose to boycott the Olympics and not allow any of their athletes to compete. It would probably be seen as a blow to national pride if Russian athletes competed under a neutral Olympic flag.

This is not good for the Olympic movement for a variety of reasons. The fact that it was possible for one of the largest Olympic committees to commit, and conceal, a cheating program so large doesn’t speak well of the Olympics in general and could turn some fans off from the Games. Furthermore, Russia is a big driver of television ratings, especially for the Winter Games, but these Olympics may not be shown on state television there due to the dispute. The Olympic Games had already been facing declining ratings in recent years and the loss of a large television audience will only cause that decline to get worse. Russia was also expected to provide the best athletes for ice hockey, since the professional players from the US and Canada will not be participating this year.

The IOC investigation took over 17 months and was led by a former president of Switzerland. The IOC is separately looking into doping allegations of individual athletes and has so far taken away 11 medals from Russian athletes won during the Sochi games. As a result, Russia dropped from first place to fourth place in the medal count at its home Olympics.

The Olympics are of course not the only sport to be caught up in doping scandals. Cycling, baseball, American football, and soccer have all gone through doping scandals at various points in the past.


Now it’s time to take a closer look at two expressions you heard earlier. Both this week’s expressions came from the story about Russia and they are both phrasal verbs this week.

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Expression: Crack down, Caught up