China’s athletes determined to win gold at Tokyo Olympics despite Covid-19 challenges

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As the countdown to the 2020 Olympic Games enters its final days, many Chinese athletes have arrived in Tokyo wearing masks and protective goggles and are busy training for the international sporting event.

In addition to delaying the Games for a year, the Covid-19 pandemic has given China’s athletes a series of challenges over the past 18 months, from training in empty fields to securing the visas and vaccines needed to head for Japan.

China is sending its largest delegation to an overseas Olympics, with 431 athletes set to compete in a record 225 events across 30 sporting disciplines. Of the 777-strong delegation, 774 have been vaccinated, but unequal vaccination rates among the other international participants remains a concern.

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The International Olympic Committee has yet to make Covid-19 inoculation compulsory and, as of Wednesday about 84 per cent of athletes and their accompanying delegations had been vaccinated. More than 70 per cent of the media covering the event have been jabbed.

Gou Zhongwen, head of the Chinese delegation, said last week that China’s representatives would be aiming for “zero infection” of Covid-19 during the Games, while striving to remain among the top medal rankings.

There will be strict health measures in place, with Olympians required to wear masks and be tested daily for the new coronavirus. Those flying to Japan will need to provide two negative nucleic acid tests before boarding, and will be tested at the airport. Two members of Uganda’s Olympics delegation, one Serbian athlete and one Israeli have already tested positive so far.

Liu Guoliang, president of the Chinese Table Tennis Association, earlier told state media there were “too many challenges and too many problems that we may not even have thought of” for athletes to deal with new health protocols during the pandemic – including not being allowed to touch the table or blow air at the ball during the competition.

“That’s why in our preparations, we have been working to train our athletes to deal with pressure and potential interference,” he said.

Table tennis player Ma Long – ranked in June as the world’s number three player – received two yellow cards during a training match in Shandong province, eastern China, over his habit of wiping the sweat from his palms on the table, according to Chinese media.

“The Japanese table tennis team has worked hard for years in preparation for the Tokyo Games and really want to defeat Chinese players at home. This spirit has motivated us to work harder and they make the exact kind of competitors we need to test out our strength,” Liu said.

In addition to table tennis, China’s athletes are expected to win gold medals in badminton, gymnastics, weightlifting, shooting and diving.

The athletes are taking no chances with Covid-19. The Chinese sailing team – the first group of athletes from China to arrive in Japan for the Games – was given its own floor of a designated hotel on Enoshima island near the competition site, but there were concerns over the presence of local tourists at the hotel.

A supporter greets members of the China delegation on their arrival in Tokyo ahead of the Olympic Games. Photo: Reuters
A supporter greets members of the China delegation on their arrival in Tokyo ahead of the Olympic Games. Photo: Reuters

Chinese Yachting Association president Zhang Xiaodong told state news agency Xinhua she was negotiating with organisers over pandemic precautions, given her “deep worries” over the athletes’ potential exposure to tourists in the hotel lobby and restaurant since their arrival at the weekend. “It may increase potential risks of Covid-19 infections,” she said.

The pandemic outbreak in Japan has yet to be contained, with daily reports of new cases exceeding 3,000 just days before the Games officially open on Friday. In Tokyo alone, daily new reported cases in the past five days have surpassed 1,000.

Tokyo’s metropolitan government officials recently announced the city’s fourth state of emergency – with residents asked to refrain from non-essential outings and travel – which is expected to last throughout the Olympics and end on August 22. Most of the competition arenas and stadiums will be empty. Of the 750 events, only 26 will have an audience.

China has offered Chinese-made vaccines to all Olympic participants as part of its bid to show its credentials as a global public goods provider. Its offer was taken up by countries such as Ukraine and the Philippines, but snubbed by the host country, where Chinese vaccines have not yet been approved for use.

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Many athletes have struggled to prepare for the Games because of the pandemic.

Chinese swimming coach Zhu Zhigen told Chinese media late last year his athletes had faced a “crisis” with the constant training in an enclosed base making it hard to keep up morale. “The athletes are closed inside [this base], and their training, life and even their thoughts will fall under low spirits, to a point of crisis,” he said.

Chinese fencer Xu Anqi also told reporters she was unable to compete for nearly nine months at the start of the pandemic last year, with many around her feeling the emotions around “training every day, but not knowing what for”.

This has meant Olympians have had to be creative, training on empty fields, in their rooms and even in the corridors of hotels.

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The Chinese national women‘s volleyball team, one of the most adored by the home audience, landed in Tokyo on Monday. Head coach Lang Ping, who made Olympic history by winning gold as both a player and a coach, said the team was aiming for a medal this year.

“The Olympic Games are different from the leagues, and every match is quite tough. We will spare no effort and work hard game after game,” she said. “We are ready. We have waited for five years,” she told media in the arrivals hall at Tokyo airport.

The organisational challenges of Tokyo will serve as a guide for China when it hosts the Winter Olympics in Beijing in February. There have been few details so far on pandemic-related preparations for the Winter Games, but they have sparked calls in some Western countries for a diplomatic boycott over alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Ren Hai, a professor at the Olympic Research Centre of Beijing Sports University, said the Beijing 2022 organising committee would draw lessons from the pandemic controls at the Tokyo Olympics.

“The epidemic has further polarised the world,” Ren told Global Times, the tabloid newspaper affiliated to Communist Party mouthpiece People’s Daily. “How to use sports events to help the world communicate and ease tensions is also a question for both Tokyo and Beijing to think about.”

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