By John Bechtel
Athletes training for the Summer Olympics, which open in Japan on July 23, are seeing their dreams of medals tempered by concerns about contracting COVID-19, even as Tokyo bans fans from attending the games and establishes strict protocols.
Archer Md Ruman Shana – one of six competitors who will represent Bangladesh in Tokyo – said he was fine with protocols aimed at keeping athletes, coaches and officials safe.
“Not just archers, all athletes have a dream that they will have Olympics medals around their necks. I also came to the world of sports with this dream. But since it is the biggest competition in the world, winning a medal here will not be easy at all,” Shana told BenarNews.
His country has not won a single medal in Olympic competition since Bangladesh was born as a nation after breaking free from Pakistan 50 years ago.
“My only concern is that if I get infected with the virus somehow, I will have to drop out of the competition. It’s just scary,” he said.
Scheduled to take place in 2020, the Tokyo games were postponed by a year because of the global coronavirus outbreak.
Leading up to the Olympics, Shana competed in a World Cup event in Switzerland in May and the final Olympics qualification tournament in Paris last month.
“I have no problem with restrictions. Now that I have become accustomed to this situation, at least it won’t affect my performance,” he said.
Filipina Hidilyn Diaz, 30, already knows what it means to win an Olympics medal – the weightlifter collected a silver in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. She said she was blessed to be able to compete in her fourth Olympiad.
“This is all the hard work that I give in training and of course it is really special because of the pandemic,” she said in a statement released by the Philippine Olympic Committee.
“Going back to 2016 when I won the silver medal, I was really happy and grateful to God that he gave me an unexpected gift. I worked hard for it and I really am proud to represent the Philippines,” Diaz said.
“For me, after winning in the Olympics, I just realized, it’s not only a medal, it’s also a responsibility to the young generation.”
The International Olympic Committee issued a 70-page playbook for athletes, officials, coaches and chaperones participating in the Tokyo games.
The playbook requires participants to monitor their temperature for 14 days leading up to their arrival. Those who experience COVID-19 symptoms are to stay home. It also calls for participants to limit physical contact with others.
During the four days before leaving for Tokyo, participants must show negative results from two COVID-19 tests, including one test taken three days or closer to departure.
Upon arrival, participants will be tested at the airport and must then quarantine for three days. Participants are not required to have been vaccinated but will be tested throughout the games.
While in Tokyo, participants are required to wear masks except when training, competing, eating, drinking, sleeping or during interviews.
Because of a spike in cases in Japan, organizers earlier this month announced that spectators would be banned from the competitions and Opening and Closing ceremonies.
Japan has recorded more than 835,000 COVID-19 infections and nearly 15,000 deaths since the pandemic began, according to disease experts at U.S.-based Johns Hopkins University.
‘Like a bubble within another bubble’
Thailand’s Olympic contingent consists of 41 athletes; Malaysia is expected to send 30 to Tokyo; Indonesia, 28 plus and alternate; the Philippines, 19; and Bangladesh, six.
“The Thai team has four doctors, two physical therapists and one nurse. Including official staff and athletes there will be more than 100,” said Dr. Paisal Chantarapitak who leads the Thai athletic medical team.
In Bangladesh, the National Olympic Academy director praised members of the Tokyo organizing committee for their efforts.
“Competitors should not be under stress for fear of COVID-19 because the organizers have taken enough preventive measures,” Md. Mahfuzur Rahman Siddique told BenarNews.
Under World Health Organization guidelines, Bangladeshi participants will be housed in single rooms where they will be served meals and will not be able to congregate, he said.
Indonesia’s largest team – the 11 badminton competitors – already traveled to Japan for pre-games training after undergoing quarantine.
Raja Sapta Oktohari, head of Indonesia’s National Olympics Committee, said athletes would be escorted to their training centers and competitions under the supervision of a committee support team member who also quarantined. Along with its athletes, Indonesia sent 23 coaches and officials.
“We protect all those involved, so we also include a support team to carry out super-tight supervision during activities during the quarantine period, including during training,” he said.
Indonesia established stricter protocols than those required by the host committee.
“However, we felt we had to increase protection for our athletes so we decided to do a PCR test for seven days in a row before departure,” said Rosan P. Roeslani, who is leading the Indonesian contingent in Tokyo.
Reezal Merican Naina Merican, Malaysia’s sports minister, stressed the importance of keeping athletes safe and not just from COVID-19.
“It will be like a double-security measure, like a bubble within another bubble for the Olympic athletes. Even the catering for their food will have to be separate,” he told reporters earlier this month. “We cannot make a slip even for a second. Any exposure to COVID-19 will end up with athletes having to miss the Olympics.
“We also have to keep an eye on what the athletes consume as there are risks of accidental doping.”
Along with 30 athletes competing in 10 sports, Malaysia is sending 21 coaches and four team managers. All were vaccinated by June, according to officials.
With 19 athletes, the Philippines’ largest Olympic delegation since the Sydney games in 2000, the national Olympic Committee expressed hopes that Diaz and other athletes would bring home the gold, silver or bronze.
Among those are Elreen Ando, 22, who won two silver medals and a bronze at the 2021 Asian Weightlifting Championships earlier this year, according to the committee.
Another hopeful is gymnast Carlos Yulo, who became the first male Southeast Asian athlete to win a gold medal at the World Artistic Gymnastics Championship in 2019. That same year he debuted at the Southeast Asian Games, where he took home two gold and five silver medals.
Sharif Khiam in Dhaka, Hadi Azmi in Kuala Lumpur, Ahmad Syamsudin in Jakarta, Nontarat Phaicharoen in Bangkok and Jason Gutierrez in Manila contributed to this report.