The Tokyo Olympics were arguably the biggest sporting casualty of the coronavirus pandemic, which was postponed in an unprecedented move in March when a third of the world fell into COVID-19-related lockdowns.
More than 11,000 elite athletes from 33 different sports were to take part in the games – for most of them the culmination of athletic success.
A reduced Olympiad is planned for two weeks from July 23, 2021, with some adjustments for the pandemic. The Paralympics will follow.
The Ariake Arena, home of the gymnastics competitions, has been lit to aid athletes preparing for the late July 23rd, 2021 Olympic and Paralympic Games [Eugene Hoshiko/AP Photo]Even if the vaccines are finally rolled out, it is not yet one hundred percent certain that the event can even continue in 2021.
Al Jazeera spoke to three Asia Pacific athletes to find out how they were affected by the postponement.
Kelsey-Lee Barber, Australia
Kelsey Ann Barber, Australia’s world javelin champion [Photo courtesy of Kelsey-Lee Barber]Everyone wants to know how she became the world champion of the spear women.
“It’s the question I get asked the most,” said Kelsey-Lee Barber with a laugh after Al Jazeera asked the same question.
“Speer is a rather unusual occurrence,” she admitted. “Especially in a country like Australia where team sports are the focus.”
Barber was born in South Africa and moved to Australia as a child. In high school, she threw the discus, but her trainer encouraged her to try other field events like the shot put and spear.
When Barber won the javelin event at the 2008 Pacific School Games, she realized that this was the sport for her.
“This is the event that will bring me to the Olympics,” she recalled. “I want to do that with my life.”
Her gut was right – the 29-year-old barber is now not only world champion and won gold in Doha in 2019, but also has the twelfth-longest javelin throw of all time. Last year she threw an incredible 67.70 m in Lucerne.
Barber is preparing for her second Olympics and luckily was not as badly affected by the COVID-19 lockdown as other athletes – after all, athletics is mostly a one-off event.
“We had to move off the site at the beginning and trained in our garages and local parks,” said Barber. “When COVID was announced as a pandemic, we thought [the Olympic Committee] would do everything in their power to achieve this. “
Athletics events are held at the Tokyo National Stadium, which is also where the opening and closing ceremonies are held [File: Kimimasa Mayama/EPA]By the end of March, several countries – including Australia and Canada – had officially withdrawn their teams from the Tokyo Games and raised health concerns.
“As things escalated as quickly as they did then, I realized that Tokyo might not go on this year,” says Barber.
Although Barber is disappointed that she couldn’t compete this year, she thinks it was the right thing.
“It gave me another opportunity this year,” she mused. “I’ve really been able to focus on taking care of my body this year and that’s a big plus for the future.”
“Because of the work I’ve been able to do this year, I may have invested a few extra years in my career.”
“This year also gave me the opportunity to be just myself,” added Barber with a smile. “I still trained a lot, but for the first time in a long time, athletics didn’t have to come first.”
Farah Ann Abdul Hadi, Malaysia
Farah Ann Abdul Hadi was the first Malaysian to qualify for the gymnastics Olympics [Photo courtesy of Farah Ann Abdul Hadi]Malaysian gymnast Farah Ann Abdul Hadi was due to compete under the high roof of the 12,000-seat Ariake Gymnastics Center in Tokyo in July, the first Malaysian woman to ever qualify for the competition.
Instead, the 26-year-old worked on her routines at the Malaysian National Sports Complex in the southern suburbs of Kuala Lumpur, spending the hours in the gym and doing physical therapy, and regularly sharing updates with her 340,000 Instagram followers.
Looking back, Farah says that while she was “a little annoyed” when talk swirled about the Olympics being canceled, perhaps the delay was a blessing that allowed her body to regain its strength after two consecutive competitions a year Fully recovered in 2019 and multiple injuries during her international career.
“I no longer train in pain,” she told Al Jazeera on a video call from Bukit Jalil. “Since I’m more of an older gymnast – I’m 26 and obviously my body isn’t like it was when I was 16 – it’s quality more than quantity. To perfect the skills and make sure my body is in good health for 2021. “
Farah started gymnastics at the age of three and attended classes with her older sister. “My parents are both athletic and wanted their children to play sports too,” she said, explaining how she “fell in love” with gymnastics. “I was a hyperactive kid too,” she says with a smile.
At the age of six she began to fight for her state and two years later to train with the national team. Your first international competition was in 2010.
Artistic gymnastics is a test of agility, flexibility and strength and has been part of the Summer Games since they took place in Amsterdam in 1928.
Women compete in four disciplines – uneven bars, beams, vaults, 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 enjoys the soil the most.
“I love to express myself and perform for the crowd, and this is where I can also show my strength and my art,” she said.
She has a “story” with the beam, she says ruefully of the four-inch (10 cm) wide and five-meter-long wooden device that is 1.25 meters above the ground. “I like the beam, but it doesn’t really like me back.”
It was a bug on the beam that cost the gymnast a seat at the Rio Games in a tiny space. It was a “devastating” blow, she says.
She secured her place in Tokyo by qualifying at the World Championships in Stuttgart in October 2019. When Farah competed in the early morning, she had to wait nervously late into the night before she was sure that she had qualified. “Tokyo, here we come!” She wrote to her family in Malaysia.
When Farah first started in the sport, she was inspired by Nastia Liukin, who emerged as an Olympic champion in 2008 and excelled in all four disciplines. Now it is Simone Biles, the most awarded female athlete in the Olympics, who took home four gold medals in Rio and inspired a generation of young women.
This year, toy maker Mattel made a one-of-a-kind Barbie from Farah – part of a project to honor inspiring women from around the world.
By attending Tokyo, Farah hopes to show the Malaysians that nothing is impossible.
“It’s basically about having a goal and achieving the dream you’ve had since you were eight – to go out with the Malaysian flag on your shoulder,” she said. “I am very proud to be a 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 who you want to be.”
Annabelle Smith, Australia
Olympic diver Annabelle Smith [Photo courtesy of Annabelle Smith]Australian diver Annabelle Smith was “pretty devastated” when she found out that the Games had been postponed due to COVID-19.
“If you’ve been working towards something for four years or your entire career, it was pretty disappointing that it was torn away from you at the last minute,” the 27-year-old told Al Jazeera.
Smith has been diving for 15 years, during which time he has competed in the London and Rio Olympics and won a bronze medal in Rio.
As such, she is “grateful” to have already had two Olympic experiences and has spent a lot of time setting goals and speaking to her sports psychologist and trainer in preparation for Tokyo 2021. Now she feels “energized again”.
She says some of her Olympic teammates 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 other plans in 2021, such as raising families, while others have “aged” out of their sport or are at increased risk of injury.
Being a Melbourne-based athlete created additional difficulties during suspension – one of the longest and toughest in the world.
“I just had to work out at home in my living room,” she said.
Now, however, she is fortunate enough to be back in the training facilities, despite making sure these stay COVID-19 safe.
“In our training sessions we have to clean the equipment thoroughly and really use our initiative to make sure everything stays safe.”
Mai Yasuda dives from the 10-meter platform during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Aquatics Center, which hosts artistic swimming, diving and swimming events during the Olympic and Paralympic Games [File: Issei Kato/Reuters]With COVID-19 far from over, Annabelle says that during practice and preparation, as if the games were going as planned, she will “likely cry” if they are postponed again.
“I think it will really be such a positive thing for the world just to get the Olympics going and that people can watch and celebrate after all these challenges from COVID on TV. I’m just looking forward to uniting everyone. “
With reports from Kate Walton in Canberra, Kate Mayberry in Kuala Lumpur and Ali MC in Melbourne.