SINGAPORE: Gone are the cheers, the roars and the screams.
When Team Singapore’s athletes now step onto the field of play, they are first greeted by a reminder of the new normal.
“Having the audience and spectators is like a very, very big part of competition and right now, we don't have that at all,” swimmer Amanda Lim told CNA.
“It is just very weird because when we race, it is absolute silence - there’s no music, there’s no nothing, you can literally hear a pin drop on the floor. You don’t really have the atmosphere.”
“It definitely feels different,” admitted badminton player Loh Kean Yew, who recently competed at two closed-door tournaments in Thailand. “I now focus on what I need to do on court more. I can hear my coach better now!”
And they train, they play, they compete. Amid a pandemic which continues to sweep the globe, competing has become something of a luxury.
“I’m not really complaining because at least we can compete and at least there’s some sort of racing involved,” explained Lim, a multiple Southeast Asian Games gold medalist.
And for this select group of athletes, they do it all with one eye on the biggest stage that sport provides. Five rings of the Olympics loom, five months to go, and the clock is ticking.
“The Olympics is a pretty prestigious event, everyone looks forward to it. And it is one of the pinnacles for sports in general,” said sailor Ryan Lo, who is currently based onthe Spanish island of Lanzarote, as he prepares to mount a qualification campaign for his first Games.
“Every athlete from young always has the dream or target of going to the Olympics hopefully one day and doing well.”
But these dreams had to be shelved for a year, after the Games, originally scheduled to start in July last year, were postponed in March 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fast forward almost a year and uncertainty continues to swirl over the fate of the Olympics and the subsequent Paralympics where about 15,000 athletes are expected to converge and compete.
THINKING OUTSIDE THE BOX
For one, Japan remains under a state of emergency, after cases COVID-19 spiked in early January.
READ: With 6 months to go, cancellation fears cloud Tokyo Olympics
Currently, the country’s state of emergency - its second in a year - is significantly looser than the lockdowns seen elsewhere in the world, and primarily calls for increased teleworking and the closure of bars and restaurants from 8pm.
While the state of emergency was extended in February and remains in place, the number of new infections has dipped.
The 7-day average of cases in Tokyo is currently about 360, and the average number of new cases in Japan over the past week stands at about 1300.
Organisers have remained steadfast that the Games can go ahead, and say they can be held safely even if the virus is not under control by the time the flame is due to be lit on Jul 23. Cancellation is not on the table, they have said.
"It's precisely because we're in this situation that we need to remember the value of the Olympics - that humankind can coexist peacefully through sport," Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto said in January.
Earlier this month, organisers unveiled a series of playbooks with instructions on the protocols that athletes, officials and the media would need to adhere to at the Games.
Measures listed in the athletes and officials’ playbook include avoiding physical contact such as handshakes or hugs, instructions against cheering and singing as well as instructions to wear a mask at all times, except when training, competing, eating or sleeping.
A COVID-19 test must also be taken within 72 hours of a flight to Japan, and individuals will have to be ready to take a COVID-19 test on arrival in Japan. COVID-19 testing will be conducted for athletes at least every four days during their stay at the Games.
The playbooks are expected to be updated in April and June with more concrete measures for those attending the Games.
Speaking to CNA, healthcare experts noted that more measures will need to be put in place to ensure the safety of all involved.
They stressed the need for a pre-event quarantine, a measure which Olympic organisers have not put into place so far.
“The truth is that different countries are coping with (the) COVID-19 (pandemic) differently. Some countries are very successful, so if an athlete came from a place like New Zealand, I may not want to put the athlete into 14 days quarantine,” said Dr Ling Li Min, who is an infectious disease specialist atRophi Clinic.
“On the other hand, if the athlete came from the United States, I'm definitely gonna put that person on 14 days quarantine, or even Europe for instance because their (COVID case) numbers are so high.”
Such measures were recently implemented at the Australian Open, where tennis players completed a 14-day hotel quarantine.
Players were allowed out of their rooms for several hours a day to practice on court and exercise. However, a smaller group of 72 players were fully confined to their rooms in Melbourne, because coronavirus cases were discovered on their flights.
The measures were met with mixed reactions from competitors.
World number one Novak Djokovic complained that the quarantine took its toll on the bodies of players, resulting in more injuries.
READ: 'So excited': Fans return to Australian Open after snap COVID-19 lockdown
On the other hand, world number two Rafael Nadal praised Australia’s approach and stressed the need for a “wider perspective”.
Other participants like American Jennifer Brady were also able to make the best of a tough situation. “It was more just trying to stay positive, and know that there are worse things out there than being in a room,” she said.
Given the importance of quarantine, and understanding the concerns of athletes, it is important for organisers of the Olympics to think outside the box, said Dr Asok Kurup, an infectious diseases physician at Mount Elizabeth Hospital.
He noted that to level the playing level, blanket quarantine measures could be implemented, but possibly for a shorter period.
“It is debatable that you need to actually have 14 days,” he said. “If you look at the whole grand scheme of things, a lot of stuff happens within one week, 10 days. So if you want to put it to me, I would say that yes, you can put it just to maybe 10 days. And then get people out faster, but you also test them when they come in, during and when they leave.”
In addition, organisers could set up dedicated facilities for athletes while on quarantine, he pointed out.
“You're putting athletes in quarantine, these are the very people who need to go and engage in sporting events. And if you put them in quarantine … they want to do their thing, they have to train,” he said.
“If you have a facility, so people who are quarantined in a way that they can access some activities … You have got to think out of the box.”
Japan will also need to quickly and efficiently proceed with its vaccine roll-out, said experts.
It launched its COVID-19 inoculation drive on Wednesday (Feb 17), administering the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to Tokyo hospital workers. Some 40,000 medical professionals were targeted to receive the initial shipments of the vaccine.
They will be followed by 3.7 million more medical personnel, then 36 million people aged 65 and over.
“Vaccinations are going to help … it will give some protection. The key question is how fast can you get people vaccinated, because the more you can vaccinate, the quicker it is, of course that you're going to get greater protection,” said Dr Ling.
But given that herd immunity is unlikely to be achieved in Japan prior to the Olympics, safety measures at the Games remain essential, she said.
Organisers have said that they would not mandate vaccinations for those attending the Games, but have stated that the jabs are recommended.
The global nature of the pandemic means concerns remain for athletes such badminton player Loh, who is an Olympic hopeful.
“Because it’s a global pandemic, I definitely have some concerns. But I believe the IOC and organisers will ensure our safety the best they can, so that helps to reduce some of my worries," said Loh, who as things stand will make the cut for the Games based on the Badminton World Federation’s “Race to Tokyo” qualification system.
In an interview with CNA at the end of last year, Sport SG CEO Lim Teck Yin said that SportSG was in discussions with the Ministry of Health on how vaccinations for Team Singapore athletes could be carried out.
“In planning for every major Games, the safety of the Singapore contingent (including the athletes) is of utmost priority. We are working very closely with Sport Singapore, the Tokyo 2020 organisers and the relevant government agencies in ensuring that we take all measures and precautions to safeguard the health and safety of our contingent,” said a Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) spokesperson in response to queries from CNA.
“We are also in constant engagement with the IOC (International Olympic Committee) to remain current with the developments and recommendations they are putting in place.”
A ‘RECIPE FOR DISASTER’
Another question hanging over the Games is whether spectators will be allowed to attend, with a decision likely to be made by the end of spring.
Allowing spectators at the Games would be a “recipe for disaster”, said Dr Ling.
“I think having spectators is going to be adding problems for the organisers; as it is they have already got a lot to worry about, managing the Olympians, and their managers and the entire entourage that comes with them,” she said.
“That is already a huge headache. To take on spectators is giving themselves so much more problems that they actually honestly can choose to walk away from, and I think they should choose not to allow spectators. It’s just a recipe for disaster.”
Dr Kenneth Wu, who is the deputy managing director of Raffles Medical Group, noted that reducing the number of individuals at an event such as the Olympics would help to reduce the risk of spread of the virus in the community.
“However, it is not sufficient alone as a measure to prevent COVID-19 transmission, due to the possibility of asymptomatic cases. This must be complemented with COVID-19 testing and other safety measures such as safe distancing, mask wearing and practising strong personal hygiene,” he added.
Should there be no spectators present at the Games, this would present another hammer blow to Olympics sponsors, experts told CNA.
Tokyo 2020 organisers had said in December last year that all 68 domestic sponsors had agreed in principle to extend their contracts for the postponed Games.
However, a Reuters monthly poll in February showed that nearly two thirds of Japanese firms oppose holding the Tokyo Olympics as planned.
“(No spectators would be a) huge loss, because when you look at something like the Olympics, imagine the amount of footfall in and out of the stadium venues and things like that where there were different touchpoints for brands to engage,” said Mr R. Sasikumar, who is the founder of sports marketing agency Red Card Global.
According to Olympics organisers, the entire cost of holding the Games is projected to be about US$15.4 billion, with the cost of the postponement coming to about US$2.8 billion. About 600,000 foreign spectators had originally been estimated to attend the event, and also contribute to tourism receipts.
“The economic impact (of a cancellation) on a lot of these brands (sponsors) could in some cases literally cripple the businesses,” added Mr Sasikumar.
“So it's not a simple thing by saying okay let's pull the plug and that's it. There are a lot of other implications and the ripple effect I believe will be too much for anyone to bear.”
Public sentiment is also against the Games. According to a current newspaper poll by the Yomiuri newspaper that was published in February, the majority of the Japanese population are opposed to holding the Olympics this summer.
The poll found that a combined 61 per cent wanted the Games to be postponed or cancelled altogether. A January poll by Kyodo news agency had shown that just over 80 per cent wanted the Games to be postponed or cancelled.
Sponsors could also face flak for their support of the Games should the situation unravel, said Mr James Walton, who is sports business group leader for Deloitte Southeast Asia.
“If the Games were to go ahead, and ... worst case scenario, something happens and there's a ‘super-speader’ event or something, then that would potentially be very damaging to some of those partners and sponsors that have their names associated,” he said.
“I think, for all the sponsors there is concern, but I think even more so for the local sponsors that are only sponsoring one Games.”
And should the sponsors begin to pull out of the Games, this could create problems for organisers, noted Mr Walton.
“Firstly, it would be negative publicity, because for sponsors to pull out, that will increase the pressure on the IOC and on Japan, as to whether or not the Games should go ahead. At the moment, the sponsors are relatively quiet ... But once people come out vocally and start saying, we are no longer sponsoring because of this, then it really increases the pressure,” he explained.
“And it will shine a spotlight on whether or not the Games should go ahead, because you've already got the Japanese public saying no.If sponsors start saying no as well, it's another each stakeholder group that has moved. On the other hand, as I say, as long as they stay quiet, it leaves the ball in the IOC and Tokyo organisers' campto decide how to proceed.”
However, whether this will happen remains to be seen, noted Mr Walton, given that the details of these sponsorship contracts have not been made public.
‘A HUGE WEIGHT’ LIFTED
Regardless of the many unanswered questions, Singapore’s athletes are pressing on in their preparation for the Games.
“We can’t worry about what we can’t control. What we can do is to prepare to the fullest and be the best version of yourself. I continue to train and prepare for the Olympics and continue to hit the targets that’s been set for me. That’s all I’m focused on,” swimmer and defending Olympic champion Joseph Schooling told CNA.
Schooling clinched the gold medal in the 100m butterfly at the last edition of the Games in Rio de Janeiro, touching the wall ahead of swimming great Michael Phelps.
The 25-year-old, who has already qualified for the Games, noted that the pandemic has brought with it a set of new challenges.
“I was training in the US and when the training facilities where I was based had to close due to the Covid-19 pandemic, I made the decision to go back to Singapore before the borders closed. I was in the US for training and if that is not available to me then I wanted to be home with my family, especially when it became clear that the pandemic is like nothing we’ve seen before, he explained.
“I observed the 14-day Stay Home Notice and shortly after, Singapore entered the 'circuit-breaker' phase. While the pools were shut, training didn’t stop for me. My coaches provided me with a detailed fitness plan to ensure that we continue with our training. Our usual training consists of pool and land sessions so even though we couldn’t get into a pool, it was no excuse to put a pause on our training sessions on land.”
At the same time, there were positives that emerged, Schooling said.
“The positives that came out of my time during circuit breaker gave me a lot of time to think of what I can do to try and get even better. Just because we can’t do the things that we normally do during these strange times, it doesn’t mean that we can’t get better for when we return,” added Schooling, who is currently preparing for the Games in the US.
His time spent training in the US has also put him in the environment to “succeed and perform at the highest level”, added Schooling.
“Despite the Tokyo Olympics being postponed, I think you can find positives out of every negative. It gives me an extra year to get physically and mentally stronger, working on the things that can get me to where I want to be,” added Schooling.
“Although we’ve had to do things a bit differently, ‘different’ doesn’t mean we can’t do other things to get me to the same spot I wanted to be in. So I’m looking at the extra year as a positive boost for myself."
Sailor Lo expressed similar sentiments despite a turbulent 2020.
The 2018 Asian Games bronze medalist had his final Games qualifier postponed in March last year, before experiencing a lockdown in Croatia, where he was preparing to compete in the European circuit.
Upon returning to Singapore and completing his Stay-Home Notice, Singapore’s 'circuit breaker' kicked in, which meant that he could not go out on the water.
The date for Lo’s qualifying event has yet to be confirmed. The race - which was slated to be held in Abu Dhabi in mid February - was postponed in January for a second time.
“(The uncertainty) is not a nice feeling. It is frustrating at times, when you have these postponements because, of course, we'd like to get it over and done with, and try to secure the spot,” he said.
“But on the other hand, the postponement of the Olympics itself may have been beneficial in other ways for me. Because I was able to have more time to prepare myself better for the Olympics. I had one extra year to try to improve physical abilities, like strength and fitness. And I also have more time on the water to train, and catch up as much as possible to the top guys.”
With the fate of the Games still murky, Lim is choosing to set her sights making the ‘A’ cut qualification timing for the 50m freestyle and lower her previously set timings.
“I've not been to any Olympics, other than the Youth Olympics. So, it will definitely be a very major milestone in my life as well,” she added. “As far as whether the Olympics is going to go on or not, that is not really on my mind right now. If it happens it happens, if it doesn’t happen, so be it.”
This time round, Schooling wants to win “more than ever”, but noted that it is important to strike a balance.
“It is always a never-ending pursuit of trying to get better. Win or lose, you’re going to give it your best. In the past, I was always focused on winning, and I still am, I still want to win more than ever. But at the same time, it is also important to find a balance - the push and pull, letting go of what you can and can’t control,” he explained.
“I want to be the best version I can be. Medal-wise, of course, everyone who goes to the Olympics, most of them want to win. If not why do we do this every day? But if there’s one thing I can be honest with myself, it’s not getting a gold medal. It’s being the best version I can be on that day where I need to step up my race. And the rest, fate will decide, right? All you can do is control the outcome of your own swimming, that’s it.”
Schooling noted that a lesson from his coach has taken a “huge weight” off his shoulders.
“One of the things that my coach Sergio Lopez made me understand is that many people would define me as what I do in the pool, but at the same time the most important thing is what I think of yourself as a person, and what my closest family and close friends define me as a person and not as a swimmer,” he said.
“Once I start to conceptualise that and wrap my head around it and believe in that, it’s a huge weight off my shoulders. Before (I used to think), what if this does not go the way that I want it to, what if this and what if that.
"But now it's as long as I give myself the best opportunity at that point in time. I am happy with that, win or lose.”