TOKYO: Gymnasts are used to having pressure on their shoulders but the athletes heading to Tokyo for next month's special meet might feel they are carrying an Olympian burden.
The meet will feature gymnasts from Japan, the United States, China and Russia and marks the first international event to be held at a Tokyo Olympic venue since the Games were postponed in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
For Tokyo, it is a major test of the city's ability to hold an international sporting event during the pandemic.
For the six American gymnasts who have elected to compete, it is a chance to be an Olympic trailblazer.
"This opportunity is huge for any athlete, not just gymnasts," Yul Moldauer, a bronze medallist at the 2017 World Championships, told Reuters from his home in Colorado.
"We are in a weird time for sporting events and so this is our chance to really go out there and kind of make things feel normal again.
"We get to go out there and compete, with everything running smoothly, other countries, other competitors, (and) other athletes will be like 'wow, they have created a way it is safe'."
With the COVID-19 pandemic still raging, the event will not be run exactly as it would have been before the health crisis.
"There are procedures we will have to follow but that is just life right now," Moldauer, 23, added.
"You have to knock down the doors and not let anything get in your way, just take it on, accept it and prove to everyone that it is going to be okay."
All four nations were invited to send up to eight gymnasts but the United States are sending a smaller delegation as only six felt confident in making the trip.
FIRST TIME ABROAD
"This whole year is filled with a lot of firsts so I am super excited," said 16-year-old eMjae Frazier, who has never previously travelled outside the United States.
"I feel like this is an advantage for me because I have a chance to compete first ... to see how it all goes."
The one-day meet will take place on Nov. 8 at the Yoyogi National Gymnasium, which will host handball at next year's Games, and will be attended by 2,000 spectators.
Japan has been relatively successful at containing the novel coronavirus and the foreign athletes heading to Tokyo are being required to undergo regular testing in their home countries.
"I am sure everything has been doing what they are supposed to and following guidelines," Frazier added.
"So, I am very positive that we will all be safe and I am pretty sure we will be fine."
Once in Japan, the athletes will not have to quarantine but will be limited to moving between the gymnasium and the team hotel.
Under protocols drawn up in consultation with the International Gymnastics Federation (FIG), the athletes will also face daily testing.
"We got a lot of information from FIG around the medical protocols," U.S. Gymnastics Chief Programs Officer Stefanie Korepin said.
"Our medical team vetted those very carefully; they were in direct contact with the FIG medical team. We got to a point where we felt the risk was low enough to be able to offer this opportunity to our athletes."
U.S. Gymnastics have chartered a flight to take their delegation to Tokyo.
"Our bigger concern was the travel portion," said Korepin.
"We felt that once we go to Japan, given the situation in Japan and the bubble that the FIG is creating for the organisations, we felt the risk was very low on that end."
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)