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Feature: The Olympics and Paralympics facing Welsh athletes

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Welsh Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls have been primed to expect a very different experience in Tokyo in 2021 – but still a special one.

As the likes of Jade Jones, Aled Davies, Melissa Courtney, Owain Doull, Natalie Powell, Lauren Price and other Great Britain prospects reflect on a hugely disrupted 2020, they will be optimistic that 2021 brings brighter days.

The International Olympic Committee have resolved to do everything they can do to ensure the Games goes ahead next July.

But as the global coronavirus pandemic continues, the only real certainly is that if the Games does take place – a year after its original date in the calendar – it will be a very different type of event.

Any budding young athlete hoping the Olympics might mean a chance to hang out with the Jamaican sprint team in the athletes’ village restaurant, or an invite to the Brazilian beach volleyball team’s after-match party, are likely to be disappointed.

In and out

This Games will be smaller, tighter, more controlled. It will be less about hanging out and more about in-then-get-out.

But Brian Davies, Sport Wales’ director of sport, insists: “While Tokyo will be a very different Olympic Games, it will still be special to those who attend.

“They will still have memories; they will still have world class competition with the eyes of the world on them. But it is going to be different to anything we have seen before.”

The IOC have yet to outline their complete schedule, but it seems inevitable both the Games and the Paralympics will operate a somewhat reduced version, with likely fewer athletes and potentially fewer events.

That appears inevitable, once the committee declared earlier this month that the athletes’ village would more of a holding pen for athletes just about to compete, rather than a traditional base for the entire duration.

“The schedule will be interesting,” says Davies. “What events will be when and, crucially, which events may not be taking place.

“Unless the Games period is extended – which is every unlikely – then they can’t operate in the way they need to and also have everything they had planned on having.

Aled Sion Davies celebrates with Wales flag at Rio Paralympics
Aled Davies celebrating his Gold Medal success at Rio 2016. Image: Roger Boule

Village life

“There are some events that were scheduled to take place that might not, or they will take place very differently.”

Athletes will be expected to arrive in the Tokyo 2020 village five days prior to their competition and depart a maximum of two days afterwards.

National Olympic Committees (NOCs) have been urged to adapt their arrival and departure plans to fit in with these new rules designed to reduce the risk of coronavirus.

Where possible, athletes are expected to acclimatise to the time differences in pre-Games training camps in Japan rather than in the Olympic village.

The normal sightseeing, socialising and so on, will be off limits.

“At their most recent session, the IOC seemed to have made some strides towards proving clarity for Olympic associations, so that they can start preparing appropriately,” adds Davies.

“It does look like the Olympic Village is the big problem. They need to look at the schedule to allow the village to operate in the way they want it to operate, which is as a holding pen immediately prior to events and then the athletes leave.

The select few

“It’s then up to the associations whether or not those athletes are allowed to stay in the country, in their own camps, or hotels, or whatever they have booked.

“The IOC’s responsibility will end once the athletes have left the village.”

So, the arrangements look clearer for Welsh hopefuls. Get in, compete, get out – either to home or elsewhere in Japan.

But what about the months stretching between now and the opening ceremony?

When are the qualification events in each sport? If there are no qualifiers, what’s the selection process?

Those matters are still being decided in many sports with events tentatively planned for the start of 2021.

Some – like double Olympic taekwondo champion Jade Jones – have been able to travel abroad for a few events in recent months, including the current European Championships.

Boxer Lauren price in ring being watched by coach
Boxer, Lauren Price. Credit: Commonwealth Games Wales

Olympic diary rings

Sadly, and inevitably, a smaller Games with fewer events, smaller teams and harder qualification times is likely to mean the younger, fringe selections could miss out altogether.

For Davies, that’s just a necessary consequence of the Games going ahead, although it could mean an enhanced role for the next Commonwealth Games, Birmingham 2022, as a launch pad for the Paris Olympics in 2024.

“It’s not easy for anyone, but the ones who will find it most difficult are the ones who were on the edge of selection.

“It’s a shame because in the past it’s all about giving athletes an opportunity to experience the Games so that they will be more experienced for the next Games four years later.

“But we do have Birmingham, so that will help them as an experience to help prepare them for Paris.”

The vaccine scene

There are other big issues to sort out, too, in 2021.

With vaccines being rolled out across the globe, the IOC have said a vaccine certificate will not be insisted upon for each competitor – so preserving a level playing field.

Some countries, such as the USA, have declared they intend to vaccinate all their team beforehand, but demands that Olympic athletes somehow “queue jump” their place in the line could have all kinds of political repercussions in the UK and elsewhere.

Whatever happens in Tokyo, and in the build-up, Davies insists the Welsh hopefuls will take it all in their stride. Why? Because that’s what elite athletes do.

“Their shared characteristic is their resilience,” he says. “They will find a way through this because that’s what they always do.

“They do it when they get injured, when they have setbacks in performance or selection. They all have that resilience built into them but they will all need different levels of support.

“Anyone who goes will be there on merit, they will do doing their best, and they will have a hell of a story to tell.”

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