The Coronavirus’ Next Victim: China’s Olympic Dreams

Jieyu Liu of China during training for the 2019 Gymnastics World Cup at the at Resorts World Arena.

Source Shaun Botterill/Getty

Why you should care

China's top athletes are in quarantine overseas or at home, unable to train together and unsure whether they'll even get to participate in the Olympics.

The Chinese women’s soccer team for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games stretched on their yoga mats along a Brisbane hotel corridor. They had arrived in Australia from Wuhan — ground zero of the coronavirus outbreak — and were under intense scrutiny. Barred from using the hotel gym and effectively quarantined on their floor, the team had to settle for whatever little training they could manage between elevator entrances and empty industrial laundry trolleys. Four of their teammates remain stuck in Wuhan under a government-enforced travel ban.  

Less than six months out from the world’s most awaited sporting event, premier athletes are typically fine-tuning their training routines. But many of China’s Olympic teams are instead grappling with the impact of the coronavirus that has already killed more than 600 people and brought disruption and uncertainty to a sporting machine renowned for its efficiency and ruthlessness. The virus, which has already hit China’s economy and crippled public life, now threatens to torpedo its dreams of reversing in Tokyo the ignominy of the 2016 Rio Games, where the second-most successful Olympic nation this millennium fell third in the medals tally behind the much smaller Great Britain.

Global worries over Chinese visitors spreading the virus are leading to restrictions on the country’s teams training overseas. The Chinese rugby team was due to return to China from a scheduled winter training camp in New Zealand on Jan. 27, but is still at its hotel in Tauranga. They now plan to stay in New Zealand until at least mid-March, before traveling to South Africa for another qualifying event — if they’re permitted there. China’s Olympic badminton team, a factory of gold medals for the nation, were in Bangkok playing in a qualifying event when measures to contain the virus were first announced. They’ve been allowed back into China but have had to enter a period of quarantine.

Outside of wartime cancellations, there is no precedent for this level of disruption.

Richard Baka, Victoria University, Melbourne

Teams within the country are also affected. The Chinese Olympic archery team has been sent to train in isolation at an academy in Sichuan. Members of the rifle shooting team seeking Olympic qualification began an unplanned, isolated training camp in Beijing on Jan. 27, with some who recently returned from Germany sent into a separate quarantine. A sports psychologist was brought in to work with the team and help them deal with the disruption.

Several qualifying events have been cancelled. The Asian Olympic Wrestling Qualifying event, which was planned for March 27-29 in Xi’an, is set to be rescheduled for later this year. Olympic boxing qualifiers, scheduled for early February in Wuhan, have been postponed by a month and moved to Jordan. Women’s basketball qualification will now take place in Belgrade rather than Foshan in southern China.

“Outside of wartime cancellations, there is no precedent for this level of disruption,” says Richard Baka, co-convener of the Olympic Research Network at Victoria University in Melbourne, Australia, who has attended seven Olympic Games.

OLY-2020-JAPAN-CHINA-HEALTH-VIRUS

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe (pictured right) says he will work with international health officials as Tokyo continues to prepare for the summer Olympics amid an international coronavirus outbreak.

Source Getty Images

Chinese officials formally insist that training plans remain on track — in keeping with the country’s approach to underplay crises. But China’s state-run media itself has reported disruptions or cancellations of training schedules in boxing, soccer, wrestling, basketball, tennis, hockey, badminton, diving, equestrian, golf and biathlon. Apart from Olympic teams, China’s professional sports leagues have also taken a hit. The Chinese Super League, the country’s domestic soccer league, has postponed the start of their season, originally scheduled for Feb. 22, and the Chinese Basketball Association has postponed games indefinitely. 

These disruptions have consequences for athletes at the apex of highly competitive sports, say experts. “Athletes utilize preparation routines to improve their technical and tactical skills, and this provides them with the opportunity to develop their mental skills by practicing things like mental imagery and relaxation techniques,” says Hiren Khemlani, a performance psychologist and director of Peak of Mind, a sports psychology firm based in Hong Kong. “Disruptions to routine — for example through cancelled training sessions — deny athletes the opportunity to develop these skills in a less pressurized environment, and can subsequently influence confidence levels.”

More sports are likely to follow, and experts are suggesting that athletes have to be prepared for long-term uncertainty. “International health matters are infinitely more important than training routines, and quality performers have to show their mental strength by dealing — in a positive way — with any disruption,” says John Callaghan, associate professor emeritus of biological science at the University of Southern California. 

Uncertainty existed in the lead up to the 2016 Rio Olympics, in the form of the Zika virus, but global interest in the new coronavirus has created an unprecedented scenario. “It is best for the athlete to stay focused on what they need to do daily in order to qualify or participate in the Tokyo Olympics,” says Kimberley Dawson, a professor specializing in sports and exercise psychology at Wilfrid Laurier University in Ontario.

But as more countries restrict arrivals from China, and fears of a pandemic spread, this focus on the games will be further tested. Between February and April, Chinese athletes are scheduled to take part in over 100 Olympic qualifying events in foreign countries. This is in addition to countless training camps planned for Chinese athletes across Asia and beyond. It’s unclear how these host nations — and ultimately Japan, come the Olympics — will manage Chinese arrivals, and whether some athletes or entire teams might be barred from participating.

If the Olympic Games themselves are postponed because of the crisis, they’ll likely be pushed back by a year, says Baka, and not just a few weeks, because of other professional commitments athletes have. “Everyone is sitting tight and waiting to see what Japan will do,” he says.

For organizers, media persons, visiting academics, spectators and sponsors, this uncertainty is an inconvenience. For China’s athletes, it disrupts preparations for what could well be the pinnacle of their sporting careers. Now, they don’t even know if they’ll make it to the Olympics.

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