The Tokyo Olympics were arguably the biggest sporting casualty of the coronavirus pandemic, postponed to March in an unprecedented move as a third of the world was plunged into lockdowns linked to COVID-19.
Over 11,000 elite athletes from 33 different sports were scheduled to compete in the Games – most of them the pinnacle of athletic achievement.
A clean Olympics are now planned for two weeks from July 23, 2021, with some adjustments for the pandemic. The Paralympic Games will follow.
Even if the vaccines are finally deployed, it is still not 100% certain that the event will even be able to take place in 2021.
Al Jazeera spoke with three athletes from the Asia-Pacific region to find out how they were affected by the postponement.
Kelsey-Lee Barber, Australia
Everyone wants to know how she became the women’s javelin world champion.
“That’s the question I get asked the most,” Kelsey-Lee Barber said, laughing, after Al Jazeera asked the same question.
“The javelin is quite an unusual event,” she admitted. “Especially in a country like Australia where team sports are the main focus.”
Born in South Africa, Barber moved to Australia as a child. In high school, she threw the discus but her coach encouraged her to take up other field events such as shot put and javelin.
It was when Barber won the javelin at the 2008 Pacific School Games that she realized it was the sport for her.
“This is the event that will bring me to the Olympics,” she recalls, thinking. “This is what I want to do with my life.”
Her instincts were right – Barber, 29, is now not only the world champion, winning gold in Doha in 2019, but also owns the 12th longest javelin on record. She threw an incredible 67.70m (222ft) in Lucerne last year.
Barber is preparing for his second Olympics and thankfully hasn’t been as affected by COVID-19 lockouts as other athletes – after all, athletics is mostly an individual event.
“We had to move off-site early on and we were training in our local garages and parks,” Barber said. “When COVID was first announced as a pandemic, we thought [the Olympic Committee] would do everything in their power to make it happen.
By the end of March, several countries – including Australia and Canada – had officially withdrawn their teams from the Tokyo games, citing health concerns.
“When things started to escalate as quickly as they used to be, I think that’s when I started to realize that Tokyo might not be moving forward this year,” said Barber.
Although she’s disappointed that she couldn’t compete this year, Barber says she thinks it was the right thing to do.
“It gave me a different opportunity this year,” she said to herself. “I was able to really focus on taking care of my body this year, and that’s a huge benefit for the future.”
“I potentially devoted a few more years to my career thanks to the work I was able to do this year.”
“This year also gave me the opportunity to just be myself,” Barber added with a smile. “I’ve trained a lot yet, but for the first time in a very long time athletics didn’t have to be the number one priority.
Farah Ann Abdul Hadi, Malaysia
Malaysian gymnast Farah Ann Abdul Hadi was supposed to spend the month of July competing under the high roof of the 12,000-seat Ariake Gymnastics Center in Tokyo, the first Malaysian woman to qualify for the competition.
Instead, the 26-year-old worked out her routines at Malaysia’s National Sports Complex in the southern suburbs of Kuala Lumpur, spending hours at the gym and physiotherapy and sharing regular updates with its 340,000 Instagram followers.
Looking back, Farah says that while she was ‘a little upset’ as rumors swirled around the Olympics being canceled, the delay may have been a blessing in disguise, allowing her body to fully recover afterwards. consecutive competitions in 2019. and multiple injuries throughout his international career.
“I don’t train in pain anymore,” she told Al Jazeera during a video call from Bukit Jalil. “Since I’m already more of a senior gymnast – I’m 26 and obviously my body isn’t like 16 anymore – it’s quality rather than quantity. To hone skills and make sure my body is healthy for 2021. ”
Farah started gymnastics at the age of three, attending classes alongside her older sister. “My parents are both athletic and they wanted their kids to play sports too,” she said, explaining how she “fell in love” with gymnastics. “I was also an overactive child,” she says with a smile.
She started competing for her state at the age of six and training with the national team two years later. Its first international competition took place in 2010.
Artistic gymnastics is a test of agility, flexibility and strength and has been part of the Summer Games since they were held in Amsterdam in 1928.
Women compete in four disciplines – uneven bars, beam, vault and floor – in a sport that has long been dominated by the United States, Russia and China. Malaysia has had more success so far in badminton, diving and cycling.
Farah loves the floor the most.
“I love expressing myself and playing for the crowd and this is also where I can show my strength and my art,” she says.
She has a “history” with the beam, she says sadly of the 10cm wide (4 inches) and five meters (16.4 feet) long piece of wooden contraption, which is 1.25 meters. (4.1 feet) from the ground. “I like the beam, but she doesn’t really like me back.”
It was an error on the beam that cost the gymnast a place at the Rio Games by the smallest margin. It was, she said, a “devastating” blow.
She secured her spot in Tokyo during qualifying for the Stuttgart World Championships in October 2019. Competing early in the morning, Farah endured an agonizing wait until late at night before knowing for sure that she was qualified. “Tokyo, here we are!” she sent a message to her family in Malaysia.
When Farah first started in the sport, she was inspired by Nastia Liukin who became an Olympic all-around champion – excelling in all four disciplines – in 2008. She is now Simone Biles, the most decorated female athlete at the Olympics. , who won four gold medals in Rio and enchanted a generation of young women.
This year, toy maker Mattel created a one-of-a-kind Farah Barbie – part of a project to honor inspiring women around the world.
Farah hopes that by competing in Tokyo she can show the Malays that nothing is impossible.
“It’s basically about having a goal and achieving that dream you’ve had since you were eight – going out there with the Malaysian flag on your shoulder,” she said. “I am very proud to be a female gymnast, to be able to represent my country and to show young girls that you can have a career in sport and that you can be whoever you want.
Annabelle Smith, Australia
Australian diver Annabelle Smith was “quite devastated” when she discovered the matches had been postponed due to COVID-19.
“When you’ve been working for something for four years or your entire career – to have pulled it off at the last minute was pretty disappointing,” the 27-year-old told Al Jazeera.
Smith has been diving for 15 years and during that time competed in the Olympic Games in London and Rio, winning a bronze medal in Rio.
As such, she feels’ grateful ‘to have had two Olympic experiences already and spent a lot of time resetting her goals and talking to her psychologist and sports coach in preparation for Tokyo 2021 and now feels’ invigorated. “.
She says some of her Olympic teammates have found it more difficult, noting that “people plan their careers around the Olympics”.
Smith also knows that some athletes have been forced to retire because they had different plans for 2021, such as starting a family, while others have “aged” from their sport or face an increased risk of injury. .
Being a Melbourne-based athlete presented additional challenges during the lockdown – one of the longest and strictest in the world.
“I just had to practice in my living room at home,” she says.
However, she now has the chance to be back in training centers, while making sure they remain safe from COVID-19.
“In our gym sessions, we need to clean the equipment thoroughly and really use our initiative to make sure everything is safe.”
However, with COVID-19 far from over, Annabelle says that as she trains and prepares as if games go as planned, she will “likely cry” if they are postponed again.
“I think it will really be such a positive thing for the world to kick off the Olympics and for people to watch TV and celebrate something after going through all these challenges of COVID. I’m just glad it unites everyone.
With reporting from Kate Walton in Canberra, Kate Mayberry in Kuala Lumpur and Ali MC in Melbourne.