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The Big Read: Taking utmost precautions, Olympics-bound athletes hoping show will go on despite health risks

With fewer than 50 days to go before the sporting extravaganza begins, Singapore’s Olympians are preparing for the first-ever Olympics to be held amid an unprecedented global pandemic.

The Big Read: Taking utmost precautions, Olympics-bound athletes hoping show will go on despite health risks

(Clockwise from top left) Shuttler Loh Kean Yew, swimmer Joseph Schooling, diver Jonathan Chan, shooter Adele Tan, fencer Amita Berthier and sailors Kimberly Lim and Cecilia Low will be some of the athletes representing Singapore at the upcoming Tokyo Olympic Games next month.

SINGAPORE: When national diver Jonathan Chan attended an international competition last month after a year-long hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic, he was greeted by a very different scene.

Unlike previous competitions where he could wander freely around the host country, the 24-year-old could only leave his hotel room in Tokyo, Japan, for training or the competition event itself.

There was also a five-person limit on the number of divers who could be on the diving board at any one time, where there was none before. Chan also had to keep his mask on until he was at the swimming pool.

READ: How safe will the Tokyo Olympics be for Team SG?

But despite the best efforts of the organisers, Chan said there were moments of concern at the 2021 Fina Diving World Cup.

“On competition day, everybody wants to warm up. So that’s when you see a huge cluster of people rushing up to the board to dive, and you see athletes covering their mouths near the tower,” he said.

Similarly, on training days, divers from other countries would also try to cut the queue despite regulations limiting the number of people on the diving board, he added.

Despite these hiccups, the fact that protocols and regulations were in place to ensure the safety of athletes at the World Cup, which is seen as a dress rehearsal for the Olympics, has left Chan feeling more confident about his personal safety when he returns to Tokyo next month to compete in the men’s 10m platform Olympic event.

That is, if the show will go on at all.

“I feel assured safety-wise but I’m not assured about whether the Games will go ahead. I read the news and it says that more Japanese citizens are against it taking place. So I don’t know if that will affect the Games,” said Chan.

National diver Jonathan Chan attended the 2021 Fina Diving World Cup in Tokyo in May 2021 after a year-long hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (File Photo: TODAY)

After being postponed by a year, the Tokyo Olympics is now scheduled to take place from Jul 23 to Aug 8 but a cloud continues to hang over the Games, seen as the pinnacle of sporting events.

Calls have mounted in recent months for the Olympics to be cancelled, as Japan battles its fourth wave of the coronavirus.

Amid the health concerns and looming uncertainty over the Games, Team Singapore (TeamSG) athletes are hoping that it will proceed as planned.

“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 (ourselves),” said national swimmer and Olympic gold medallist Joseph Schooling.

Over 11,000 athletes from more than 200 countries and territories are expected to converge in Tokyo, which is currently under a state of emergency.

READ: Commentary: Tokyo Olympics will be a watered-down, subdued event if it continues

Observers worry that the Games, long seen as a celebration of humanity, could turn into a COVID-19 super-spreader event with devastating effects on the international community instead.

Fears over risks to public safety and strains on an overwhelmed healthcare system have led to a growing number of Japanese citizens calling for the Games’ cancellation. It also does not help that a mere 2.7 per cent of the Japanese population has been fully vaccinated.

Top officials from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have declared that the Games will go on, insisting that the event will be safe for the athletes and the wider community. 

On top of barring spectators from the event, the IOC has also released a “playbook” of protocols for athletes and officials to follow so that they will remain COVID-19-free during the Games.

READ: About 220 Team Singapore athletes, coaches and officials have completed COVID-19 vaccinations: SportSG

These protocols, which will be updated again this month, stipulate that athletes must test negative for COVID-19 before and after arriving in Japan, and be quarantined for at least three days upon arrival. Athletes must also have their masks on at all times, and rooms will be ventilated every half an hour.

However, these have done little to convince observers — and the Japanese public — of the event’s safety.

In an opinion piece for the New England Journal of Medicine on May 25, health experts warned that the IOC’s decision to proceed with the Games is “not informed by the best scientific evidence”.

They said that the regulations detailed in the IOC’s playbook do not distinguish the various levels of risk faced by athletes or recognise the limitations of the measures, such as temperature screening and face coverings.

READ: Commentary: Here’s why Japan won't cancel the Olympic games even if it wants to

Instead, the IOC should consider the number of infected people, the degree of ventilation in spaces and the type of activity and level of aerosols it generates when planning its safety protocols, said the experts.

While most nations remain committed to participating in the Tokyo Olympics for now, North Korea last month became the first country to pull out of the event, citing the need to protect its athletes from COVID-19.

In Singapore, 16 athletes have qualified to compete at the Tokyo Olympics, with the final size of the contingent to be finalised closer to the Games once qualification processes for other athletes have concluded. Twenty-five athletes took part in the last Games in Rio.

With all this uncertainty surrounding the Olympics, is it still safe for the Singapore contingent to go?

Singapore’s Foreign Minister Vivian Balakrishnan said in an interview on May 27 with American media outlet CNN that as of now, the Republic is prepared to send a delegation to the Games.

READ: IN FOCUS: Dedication amid the delay - Team SG prepares for an Olympics which remain in doubt

“We will take all the necessary precautions, and obviously, in the case of the Singapore delegation, you know that we will be vaccinated as well,” he said.

“In addition to that, we will take all the other necessary precautions. Mask wearing, social distancing, and all the measures you have to take to make sure you are not in high-risk environments.”

Dr Balakrishnan added that the Government would “see what the situation is like closer to the date” and expressed confidence in the Japanese government’s efforts to make the Games safe.

Protesters at a demonstration against the Tokyo Olympics, in Tokyo on May 17, 2021. (Photo: Reuters)

On the same day, Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong expressed his well wishes for the Singapore contingent.

Writing on Facebook, Mr Lee noted that the country’s sporting community is “one of the groups hard hit by the pandemic”. “Despite the disruptions, (the athletes) have been training hard and making sacrifices, including deferring their studies,” he said.

In response to TODAY’s queries, the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC), which coordinates the selection of Singapore athletes for competition at major games, said that each National Olympic Committee is obliged to participate in the Games by sending athletes.

To this end, SNOC reiterated its commitment to the Olympic Movement, which aims to contribute to building a peaceful and better world by educating youth through sport practised in accordance with Olympism and its values.

With fewer than 50 days to go before the sporting extravaganza begins, Singapore’s Olympians are preparing for the first-ever Olympics to be held amid an unprecedented global pandemic.

READ: Commentary: There is no shame in cancelling the Olympics now when options remain

The 10 athletes interviewed said that they are undeterred by safety concerns, and have adapted their training in the face of multiple challenges brought about by COVID-19.

But while athletes and members of the sporting fraternity alike said that they are assured of the precautions taken by the Singapore authorities, they recognise that TeamSG’s safety will also depend on external factors, including efforts by the host country and other nations, as well as the nature of the virus itself.

TURNING NEGATIVES INTO POSITIVES

For athletes who have spent their entire sporting careers training around the four-year Olympic cycle, last year’s postponement of the Games was too much to bear for some.

Among the casualties were badminton legend Lin Dan of China and New Zealand rider and Olympian Eddie Dawkins. They cited their lack of physical fitness and lack of certainty over the Olympics going on as reasons to call time on their career.

One Singaporean athlete said she had come close to doing so too.

National diver Freida Lim, who is awaiting confirmation of her Olympic berth, said that the postponement almost led to her calling it quits.

The 23-year-old had planned to retire after participating in the Tokyo Olympics, but when it was postponed, the long break from training made her feel she was “done with diving”. She eventually changed her mind after deciding that she did not want to have any regrets.

READ: Japan considers asking Olympic fans for negative COVID-19 tests, vaccinations: Report

National diver Freida Lim, who is awaiting confirmation of her Olympic berth, said that the postponement almost led to her calling it quits. (Photo: Frieda Lim)

Other TeamSG athletes said that they had turned the one-year postponement to their advantage as it gave them more time to prepare for the Games.

For Schooling, the extra year gave him time to become physically and mentally stronger.

Singapore’s sole Olympic gold medallist said that even though the pools were shut when he returned to Singapore from the United States just before the circuit breaker in April last year, he continued training on land. 

He also focused on his conditioning and technique work amid the lack of competition practice.

“The positives that came out of my time during the 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 when we return,” said the 26-year-old.

READ: Commentary: Jo Schooling, a hunted man on a quest for gold and so much more

Similarly, for sailors Kimberly Lim and Cecilia Low, the one-year break was a “much-needed breather”.

Lim, 25, took the time to improve her body strength and conditioning, and improve her mental skills preparation. She also analysed past regattas and worked on improving her knowledge of sailing rules.

Her teammate Low, 30, took the opportunity to refresh her mind and work on her range and power.

National sailors Kimberly Lim (left in red cap) and Cecilia Low taking part in the 2021 Cascais 49er & 49er Fx Championship in Portugal in preparation for the 2021 Tokyo Olympics. (Photo: Luis Fráguas)

Nevertheless, some of the athletes said they were affected by the lack of international competitions.

National shuttler Loh Kean Yew, 24, who will be making his debut at the Olympics, said that the cancellation of most tournaments “dampened (his) spirits somewhat”.

These tournaments usually serve as an avenue for him to play against top players in the world and raise his game, said Loh, who is currently ranked 42 in the world.

For those who have been able to resume competing internationally, such as Chan, the mandatory stay-home notice period after returning to Singapore has also been disruptive to training.

READ: COVID-19: Japan to declare 'short, powerful' emergency in Tokyo, elsewhere

The enforced break means that it takes longer for divers to train and become competition-ready again, said Chan.

But when asked how much this would affect his training and subsequent performance at the Olympics, Chan said that he had been through worse situations, such as when he was serving his National Service and had only a day or two to prepare for competitions after booking out.

Moreover, the Singapore Swimming Association, the governing body for the sport here, has also supplied athletes in quarantine with weights and mats so that they can continue their training even during quarantine, said Chan.

For national rower Joan Poh, who is also a nurse at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, having to juggle her training on top of her career disrupted her training during the circuit breaker period in April last year.

“When I go on call, I get woken up in the middle of the night to answer patients’ calls. This disrupts my rest and preparation,” said the 30-year-old, who has been on leave from work since March this year to focus on her Olympics preparation.

READ: Commentary: Why sports still has a place in Singapore

READ: Commentary: Why success should not be the only factor in deciding what is Singapore’s national sport

SAFETY CONCERNS

While every Olympic Games has its own set of challenges, from the terrorist attack at the 1972 Munich Games to the Zika virus in the 2016 Rio Games, the Tokyo edition this year will be “uncharted territory” with many more unknowns than before, said members of the sporting fraternity.

Unlike previous threats, the current one involves an “invisible enemy” with implications for the international community on a far greater scale. 

Former Olympians and members of the sporting fraternity had mixed views on how safe the Tokyo Olympics would be, and whether it is wise to send a Singapore delegation to the event.

At the same time, they concurred that the authorities here will put the health and safety of TeamSG athletes ahead of everything else if the Games proceeds as planned.

Oon Jin Teik, the former chief executive officer of Sport Singapore (SportSG), the national sports governing body, called on the IOC and Tokyo Organising Committee to do an open, comprehensive and transparent risk assessment of the Games.

Such as assessment would assess various aspects of holding the Games, such as the economic impact of hosting the event, the adequacy of Japan’s national healthcare system to manage a COVID-19 outbreak during this period, and the public relations fallout if the virus overshadows the athletes’ performances, said Mr Oon.

Mr Oon had publicly called for the postponement of the Games last year, based on his personal experience co-chairing the first Asian Youth Games in Singapore in 2009.

He said that it had been “incredibly difficult and challenging” to run the event during the H1N1 influenza pandemic at that time.

READ: How safe will the Tokyo Olympics be for Team SG?

“We already had the Tamiflu vaccine, but to run the Games, it was very, very difficult. Fortunately, it was a small Games and the Ministry of Health was completely supportive. So we had the confidence to do a small trial before the Youth Olympic Games in 2010,” recounted Mr Oon, who is also a former national swimmer and Olympian.

However, the Olympics in Tokyo would be on a far larger scale featuring more athletes, events, and stakeholders including volunteers, he pointed out.

The podium to be used for the medal ceremonies at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Games is seen during an event at Ariake Arena in Tokyo on June 3, 2021, to mark 50 days to the opening ceremony. (Photo: AFP)

Even if the Japanese authorities and the IOC were to have all protocols in place, the safety of the event could still be compromised by external factors, said other observers.

It will be impossible to avoid contact with athletes from other nations during the actual sporting event despite efforts to segregate them, said former national fencer Nicholas Fang.

While TeamSG athletes have been fully vaccinated, the virus can still breach the vaccines, added Mr Fang.

Currently, the IOC does not require athletes at the Olympics to be vaccinated. Nevertheless, Singapore has prioritised Tokyo-bound athletes for vaccination.

To date, about 70 confirmed athletes, coaches and officials from Singapore headed to the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, which takes place from Aug 24 to Sep 5, have been vaccinated except for those with medical reasons. Overseas-based athletes will also be vaccinated before the upcoming Games.

However, the sporting fraternity acknowledged that it would be a huge blow to the Singapore delegation if the Games were cancelled or if the delegation had to pull out.

Mr Fang said that any of the two scenarios would have a “devastating impact” on TeamSG, given that many of these athletes have put on hold their education, career or family plans for an opportunity to participate in the Olympics.

On the other hand, Mr Fang also pointed out that in terms of “hard implications”, Singapore athletes do not stand to lose as much as some of their counterparts from other countries where sport is professionalised.

In these countries, missing out on an opportunity in the Olympics would have greater implications on athletes including on their sponsorship deals.

Dr Benedict Tan, Singapore’s Chef de Mission for the Tokyo Olympics, said in response to queries that the support team behind the athletes has taken “great pains” to ensure that COVID-19 does not scuttle the athletes’ training, qualification, and performance on the Olympic stage.

“We have been preparing for these Games for years, like at every other major Games, assessing and anticipating all risks and ensuring that we have the right measures and precautions in place to manage them,” he said.

SNOC said preparations for the Tokyo Games have been in the works for many years, and that it has worked with stakeholders to ensure that “all grounds (are) covered”.

The council explained that risk assessments are carried out prior to any major Games and that it works with many stakeholders, such as government agencies, National Sports Associations (NSAs) and the Singapore foreign mission in the host country, to prepare measures that ensure the health and safety of the contingent.

The council added that the Singapore contingent is also committed to abiding and adhering to guidelines set out in the IOC’s playbooks to ensure a safe and successful outing for TeamSG.

NSAs approached said that they would respect the decision of their athletes if they choose to give the Games a miss out of health concerns.

Fencing Singapore, which will see two of its members competing in the Olympics for the first time, said that it has yet to receive any feedback from its members on going to Tokyo but will address any concerns that arise.

The association is also stressing good personal hygiene practices, and increased sanitation of equipment to its members, on top of frequent reminders to them to keep healthy.

The Singapore Shooting Association said that since last week, its Tokyo-bound athlete Adele Tan and her coach Song Haiping have been staying at the Singapore Sports School in a training camp bubble for a three-week stint to minimise her exposure to the virus before the Games.

The two sporting associations which have produced Olympic medallists in recent times — the Singapore Table Tennis Association (STTA) and Singapore Swimming Association — did not respond to queries from TODAY.

Athletes from the STTA were also not authorised to speak to the media without the consent of their association.

The Singapore Shooting Association said that since last week, its Tokyo-bound athlete Adele Tan and her coach Song Haiping have been staying at the Singapore Sports School in a training camp bubble. (Photo: Singapore Shooting Association)

KEEPING THE DREAM ALIVE

Mr Mark Chay, a former swimming Olympian and chairman of the SNOC’s Athletes’ Commission, said that in his discussions with athletes here, it was clear that they wanted to participate in the Games if given the opportunity, despite the present circumstances.

“They know it’s not like any other Olympic Games where you can walk freely into the city … Athletes are there to compete and celebrate humanity and inspire the world through their performances,” said Mr Chay, who is also a Nominated Member of Parliament.

Likewise, TeamSG athletes, many of whom will be making their debut at the Games, said that despite their safety concerns, they wish to fulfil their dream of taking part in the Olympics, no matter how subdued this year’s event may be.

Being vaccinated and having observed safe practices in other international events so far have also given them greater confidence.

While some expressed worry that the Games could get cancelled, they are doing their best to focus on their training for now.

Schooling, who will be aiming to retain his Gold medal in the men’s 100m butterfly swimming event, said that he is wholly focused on his Olympic mission.

“I continue to train and prepare for the Olympics and continue to hit the targets that've been set for me,” he said.

Likewise for sailor Low, who acknowledged that although this Olympics will be different from past Games, “competing with the best of the best has always been a dream”.

Singapore's Joseph Schooling celebrates after winning the 100m freestyle final at the Southeast Asian Games in Kuala Lumpur. (AFP/Manan Vatsyayana)

For national fencer Amita Berthier, 21, who will be debuting at the Olympics, the excitement of participating in the Games overtakes any fear she may have.

Berthier, who is currently training in the US, added that being vaccinated “eases the mind a little” and she will trust the protocols in place.

It will take “serious paranoia” for an athlete to forgo his or her Olympic dream, said Lim, who is on track to be Singapore’s first female diver at the Olympics.

Some athletes said they are going above and beyond safety protocols to make sure they stay COVID-19-free and on track for the Games.

National rower Poh said that she is not afraid to look silly in front of athletes from other nations when taking precautions at international competitions.

She and her team manager disinfect the seats of buses that bring athletes from their hotel to the event location, and wipe down the tables of dining areas even though they have already been cleaned by the organisers.

“We know it captures attention, but we are focused on what we have to do. The moment you are COVID-19 positive, you are disqualified. So you have to do everything you can (to stay safe).”

On top of training in a bubble to prevent being infected by the virus, shooter Tan said that she is also stocking up on disinfectants to bring to the Games.

She acknowledged that there are risks involved in going to the Olympics, but the key is to take “a calculated risk” and be extra cautious in one’s hygiene and health measures.

For national fencer Amita Berthier (right), 21, who will be debuting at the Olympics, the excitement of participating in the Games overtakes any fear she may have. (Photo: Amita Berthier)

WILL SPORTING PERFORMANCE BE COMPROMISED?

From Jamaican Usain Bolt smashing the 100m sprint record in the 2008 Beijing Olympics to American swimmer Michael Phelps sweeping 28 medals — the highest for any athlete — over four Olympic Games, the prestigious sporting event is the arena where athletes perform at their peak.

But after a year of disrupted training, some members of the sporting fraternity here said that expectations about the athletes’ performances in Tokyo — including that of the Singapore contingent — will have to be lowered.

Mr Low Teo Ping, the Chef de Mission for TeamSG at the 2016 Rio Olympics, said that one other consideration apart from safety, when deciding if the Games should go on or if a contingent should be sent there, is whether athletes can perform to their best after the one-year disruption.

“If one's expectation (given the pandemic) is that … there is no need (for athletes) to perform to their maximum capability, then I think there’s something fundamentally not correct, because your expectation is that they should be (giving their best),” he said. 

Agreeing, Mr Chay nevertheless said that he believes that athletes, including the Singapore contingent, are prepared to give their best shot in Tokyo.

READ: Commentary: Cutting down of trees in Yoyogi raises new frustrations over Tokyo Olympics

The postponement of the event has given athletes time to rest and recuperate. They have also been training as far as possible, he added.

He acknowledged that the lack of international tournaments may have “blunted” their performances, but athletes have adapted to the situation by simulating competition scenarios.

When asked if targets have been lowered for the Singapore athletes in light of the COVID-19 situation, Singapore Sport Institute chief Toh Boon Yi said that SportSG is “largely optimistic and confident” that the Singapore contingent will put on a strong performance at the Olympics.

The institute, which comes under SportSG, supports high performing athletes in Singapore.

He noted that Singapore has qualified for the diving and fencing events for the very first time, and gymnastics for the second time ever. “This certainly sets a positive momentum leading up to the Games,” said Mr Toh.

TeamSG athletes, too, said that their performance expectations have not changed despite the Olympics’ postponement. Many have found ways to continue training with the same rigour and are out to perform their best at the Games.

National fencer Berthier said that her goals are set independent of the pandemic, and she has seen minimal disruption to her training in the US.

National shuttler Loh said COVID-19 or not, he is still aiming for a medal, even though he may not be one of the favourites at the Games.

The Singapore Shooting Association said that it has no other targets for its athletes, except for them to give their best during the Games.

National diver Chan reiterated that he is not cutting himself any slack as he has been training as hard as he did during pre-COVID-19 days.

“We’ve always had disruptions in training, like school or National Service. So I’m quite used to such disruptions. My expectations are more or less the same,” he said.

National shuttler Loh Kean Yew said COVID-19 or not, he is still aiming for a medal, even though he may not be one of the favourites at the Games. (Photo: Singapore Badminton Association)

‘A CELEBRATION OF THE HUMAN SPIRIT’

With all the changes to the Olympics, questions have arisen over whether it is an Olympics in name alone.

The IOC has said that while athletes will stay at the Olympic Village, physical interactions between them, such as hugging or high-fives will not be allowed.

Unlike previous occasions where athletes could stay at the Village for the duration of the Games, they will now have to leave after their competitions conclude.

With the Olympic Village deprived of its usual celebratory pomp, Mr Oon questioned if it will be the Olympics as we know it.

But with the pandemic showing no signs of ending, Mr Chay believes it is time for the Olympics, and sports in general, to evolve with the times.

“If not, we’ll be sitting on our hands for the next few years until it’s safe,” he said.

With all the negativity surrounding the pandemic in the last year, it was also time for some positivity, he added.

“We need something to celebrate about and that is the whole reason for the Olympics – to celebrate the human spirit and performance of our athletes.”

Source: TODAY/ad

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