Olympic Games | The Guardian
E.Even in ordinary times, getting to the Olympics is not an easy task. For the vast majority of sports, the four-year games are the highlight of the competition – so the bar for qualification is extremely high. Athletes who have represented Australia at games rave about the experience – they almost always say it’s the best moment of their careers. The fact that so many Olympians then have the colorful rings tattooed on their upper bodies suggests that they will never want to forget it.
Before the pandemic, it would have been hard to imagine that the qualification process could become more strenuous. But before the Tokyo Games, which start in three weeks, the level of difficulty was consistently increased.
A small contingent of Australian athletes were lucky enough to qualify for Tokyo before the games were postponed last year. Incidentally, Covid-19 is causing a big headache. Many athletes have had to apply for exemptions in order to travel internationally to participate in qualifying tournaments; Australia’s baseball team withdrew from qualification due to “insurmountable” logistical challenges. For those who have traveled, hotel quarantine on return – two weeks without training – was a disruptive experience.
Even athletes who have not left Australia’s shores are struggling. Calls to the Australian Institute of Sport mental health network have increased. Olympic hopefuls had to move in the blink of an eye and keep their bags packed at all times to bypass barriers and the closing of domestic borders. An experienced trainer recently grumbled: “How should I live like this?”. In high-performance sport, it is usually about marginal gains. For Tokyo, showing up has proven to be the greatest challenge.
But they will appear. On Monday the Australian Olympic Committee will hold a press conference to celebrate the final Olympic delegation. Usually the moment was celebrated with a gathering of athletes and oversized Qantas tickets; with Sydney in lockdown, it will be via Zoom. But the virtual format is unlikely to detract from the symbolic meaning of the event. The Olympics are really happening. And Australia’s athletes travel to the Games to win.
As of Friday, 388 Australian athletes had been confirmed for Tokyo. Between 70 and 90 athletes will be added to this list throughout Saturday. The largest Olympic delegation that Australia has ever sent overseas was the 482-strong team for the 2004 Athens Games. While the team for Tokyo is unlikely to beat that number, it will come very close. Given the challenges of the past year, that in itself is a remarkable achievement.
Kyle Chalmers, one of the Australian medal hopes in the pool. Photo: Dave Hunt / AAP
After the successes in Sydney and Athens (where Australia finished fourth in the medal table), the last three games have been on a downward spiral. Australia finished sixth in Beijing with 14 gold medals, eighth in London with eight gold medals and tenth in Rio with another eight. But despite the obstacles posed by Covid, there are signs that Australia’s Olympians may return from Tokyo with a plentiful loot of medals – perhaps the largest since 2008.
In the pool, Australian swimming is on the rise, despite ongoing concerns about culture and abuse. Australia’s swimmers are typically responsible for the lion’s share of the nation’s medals; After impressive performances in the Trials last month, young fighters Ariarne Titmus and Kaylee McKeown look ready for their groundbreaking Olympics. Medals are also likely in cycling – on the track, on the road and in BMX freestyle, a new Olympic sport in which Australian Logan Martin is the reigning world champion.
Meanwhile, Australian athletics is at the dawn of a new golden era – javelin thrower Kelsey-Lee Barber, high jumper Nicola McDermott and the country’s medium and long-distance runners have medal potential. Sally Fitzgibbons and Steph Gilmore will aim high as surfing makes its Olympic debut while Ashleigh Barty travels to Tokyo from Wimbledon as the world number 1. Australia’s basketball players hope to return to the podium after two games without a medal.
As the games draw closer – Australia’s softball players will be among the first to play against the Japanese home team in 18 days’ time – some uncertainty remains. The Japanese government continues to deliberate whether to allow local viewers; In June it was announced that venues would be up to 50% occupancy, but on Thursday Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga hinted that there were still no fan games coming up. The hotel quarantine plans for Team Australia on the way home are still unannounced (and may be affected by the travel cap reduction on Friday). There remain unanswered questions about Covid tests and the possibility that athletes will be withdrawn from competition due to contact with a positive case.
But after a year of uncertainty and speculation, Australia’s Olympians are ready for the first Covid Games. The Olympics are moving forward and Australia has high hopes. For Australian athletes in Japan and fans back home, the Tokyo Games will be unforgettable – tattooed or not.