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Tokyo 2021: How will delay affect athletes and training?

August 4, 2020

The Olympics should be in full swing, with the Paralympics next up. But the coronavirus forced a postponement until 2021. DW spoke to athletes and coaches from around the world to find out what that's meant for them.

Image: Getty Images/J. Roriz

Training for Tokyo

After years of gruelling work, Tyrone Pillay should be tapering towards his peak, just in time for the last hurrah of a decorated career. The South African Paralympic shot putter, who won bronze in Rio in 2016 in the F42 category (Pillay had his left leg amputated above the knee), was building towards a final crack at gold and a well-earned retirement before the coronavirus struck.

Now, with the virus spreading rapidly in his country, the 40-year-old can't even train in his discipline, with South African tracks closed to Paralympic athletes. Instead, he works on his strength at his home gym, puts in the miles on an exercise bike and drives to regular Pilates classes. But it's not the same.

"I was planning to retire in Tokyo and I was ramping up really nicely," he told DW. "My performances this year have been the best of my career, in 11 years of competing, this has been the best. I threw the best distances that I’ve thrown in my life. I was in great shape, the distances were looking good, the mental stuff was in a good space.

"And when COVID came along, everything changed. You have to re-adapt, change everything and your training has to change. It’s completely different."

Competitive disadvantage

Pillay is also concerned that his competitors in other parts of the world are gaining an advantage, with many European Paralympians able to train as normal. Being unable to train for months is a major stumbling block for athletes in countries still gripped by the pandemic.

Training for Tokyo

"Right now, I think it’s myself and the Brazilian guys [in his event] who are struggling to get out there and do what we normally do," added Pillay. "The preparation is going to be a lot different, and I think that’s where the challenge will be. And also not being in a competition from now until next year is a huge loss. To get yourself in to the right mindset, you’ve got to be competing on a regular basis."

One country where athletes have been able to resume their training schedules relatively promptly is Germany. Annett Stein, the head trainer of the German Athletics Association (DLV), told DW that, while athletes have had to return to training very gradually and without proper physiotherapy and valuable group work, she feels all is not lost.

"The tried and tested methods will be retained, for example the structure of the preparation phases, performance diagnostics, exercises and training programs," Stein said.

Change of plans

"Where we might have to change something is the locations of the planned training camps. Our runners plan altitude training camps and other disciplinary groups train partly in climate training camps and have their first competitions there. At the moment, we can't use those planned destinations. Even with the start of the new season, the training camps might be difficult if no vaccine against COVID-19 becomes available."

Annett Stein, head coach of the German Athletics Association
Annett Stein, head coach of the German Athletics AssociationImage: picture-alliance/dpa/J. Büttner

Stein also added that some athletes may welcome the break as a chance to recover from long-term injuries and ailments and that sportspeople lead such structured lives that, for the majority, pushing the program back a year won't have a catastrophic effect. Motivation, she concluded, will certainly not be an issue.

That's the case for Australian kayaker Tom Green. The 21-year-old was dominant at his country's national trials earlier this year and fancied his chances in the K1 (individual sprint on calm water) and K2 (duo sprint) events in Tokyo. But after the initial disappointment of having to wait another year for the pinnacle of his young career, he's looking on the bright side.

"When I heard it was postponed I had quite a positive view on it. I was 21 and, with my K2 partner, we were a very young K2 crew and we’d only been together for a few months. I always saw it as a good opportunity for me to get one extra year of training under my belt and develop the K2 a lot more. Looking at it from an outside perspective, I do believe I'll be in a lot better shape than I was this year," Green told DW.

Relaxing the pace

Green had to train individually, often on the ocean rather than the calmer waters of competition, for three or four months. Despite Queensland, the state where he trains and lives, being relatively unscathed by COVID-19 to date, he has had to adapt his work significantly.

Tom Green is a medal prospect for Australia in the K1 and K2 events
Tom Green is a medal prospect for Australia in the K1 and K2 eventsImage: Paddle Australia

"That was the hardest thing to get my head around after nationals. We'd gone so far and got so fit just to see that part go down the drain," he said. "I didn’t really want that to happen so that’s when I started paddling on the ocean just to keep fit and keep moving.

"We won’t be going full pace for quite some time now, we’re just going to do it as if it’s a normal season. The Olympics have gone and we’re training for the next World Championships. It’s a long time to be grinding away at 110 percent for 13, 14 extra months, so I think it’s difficult for any athlete."

Despite the difficulties they face, both Pillay and Green are still wholly focused on success, with both hopeful of a podium finish in their respective events in 2021. As Stein said of those who she coaches: "Our top athletes dream of the Olympics. Everyone wants to get back to normal, especially to the things you love."