By Ian Ransom
(Reuters) – The outbreak of the coronavirus has disrupted China’s preparations for the Tokyo Olympics, barring athletes from overseas-based competitions and forcing sports authorities into makeshift arrangements five months before the Games.
At home, many of China’s Olympic hopefuls are confined to closed training bases, unable to venture abroad due to entry restrictions placed by countries to contain the virus that has killed more than 2,500 people in China.
Overseas, a slew of China’s national teams remain in hastily arranged training camps scattered across the globe, unable to return home for fear of being swept up in virus-related travel restrictions.
In a country that has long equated Olympic performance with national strength, the crisis has put sports authorities on a war footing as they scramble to prepare a competitive delegation for Tokyo.
“Under the strong leadership of the Party Central Committee and the State Council, we are confident of completing the dual tasks of ‘resisting epidemic and preparing for war’,” the General Administration of Sports (GAS) said in a report posted on the Chinese Olympic Committee’s website on Friday. (http://www.olympic.cn/news/olympic/2020/0221/310829.html)
The GAS, China’s sports ministry, has implemented emergency measures to protect the country’s home-based athletes, forbidding them from transferring between training facilities.
The restrictions extend to coaches and support staff as well as ancillary workers such as cooks, cleaners and drug testers at national and provincial centers.
The country’s most decorated Olympic swimmer Sun Yang is confined to his home-town pool at the Zhejiang College of Sports in Hangzhou, in eastern China, while national teammates train in Beijing.
Sun’s participation in Tokyo is already hanging in the balance, with the Court of Arbitration for Sport yet to make a decision in a doping case brought against the swimmer by the World Anti-Doping Agency last year.
“This is a painstaking process, and it might be harder than preparing for the Asian Games or World Championships, but I always want to prove myself,” Sun told state broadcaster CGTN this month.
China’s gymnastics team, which claimed a silver and four bronze medals at the Rio Olympics four years ago, was forced to miss a World Cup meeting in Melbourne over the weekend that carried Olympic qualifying points for individual events.
The athletes were unable to enter Australia due to government restrictions on foreign nationals traveling from China.
China’s national women’s soccer team arrived in Australia for an Olympic qualifying tournament just before the restrictions were implemented at the beginning of the month but the players had to spend nearly two weeks quarantined in a Brisbane hotel.
They have remained in Australia to prepare for the “home” leg of their Olympic playoff against South Korea, which was scheduled for Sydney on March 11 to avoid further travel complications.
The country’s powerful table tennis, badminton and boxing teams have all been given special dispensation by sports authorities to continue training outside of China.
The table tennis team, featuring men’s Olympic singles champion Ma Long and world number one Xu Xin, canceled a training camp at home in the southern island province of Hainan and has instead set up a new base in Doha, Qatar.
The Chinese boxing team, which claimed four medals at Rio, has also found sanctuary in the Middle East, where they are holding training camps in Jordan and the United Arab Emirates in coming weeks.
Other Chinese teams training far from home have reported attending “party lessons” to build unity and remind them of their duties in a time of crisis.
The women’s rugby sevens team, who have qualified for Tokyo, held one in Tauranga, New Zealand, last week.
In a report on the Chinese Olympic Committee’s website, winger Chen Keyi said the lesson had reminded her of the sacrifices of China’s “revolutionary ancestors”.
“Now is the crucial time for the people of the Motherland to fight the coronavirus epidemic,” she said.