Olympics

Mongolian athletes stranded in Japan remain hopeful for Paralympics

Host cities across country supporting athletes unable to return home

by Ayano Shimizu

Kyodo

A group of Mongolian Paralympic athletes who came to Japan in February to train with hopes of competing in the now-postponed Tokyo Games have found themselves unable to return home amid the new coronavirus pandemic.

The six members of Mongolia's para athletics team have extended their stay in Yaizu, Shizuoka Prefecture, for more than a month so far due to restrictions imposed by the Mongolian government in response to the spread of COVID-19.

But while they are still uncertain as to when they can return, and confess to missing home, the athletes are determined to make the best of their situation, taking advantage of the excellence of facilities available in the city.

"Since we are not sure when we can return to Mongolia, I've been concentrating on my training," Erdenechimeg Unurmaa, who competes in the women's throwing events, recently told Kyodo News through an interpreter.

"We can't change the fact that we can't return. I'm feeling a little homesick and want to see my family, but it can't be helped, so I try to make the most of this time by looking at it positively."

Manager Byambajav Enkhbaatar, four athletes and a coach were originally scheduled to train in Yaizu between Feb. 14-March 11 before traveling to Dubai to take part in a tournament that doubled as a Paralympic qualifier.

However, the event was canceled because of the virus. Mongolia has also suspended all international flights arriving and departing from the country, recently extending the restriction until the end of May, according to the Japanese Embassy in Mongolia.

The one-year delay of the 2020 Summer Games was announced on March 24 in response to the global health crisis, which has disrupted the sports calendar throughout the world.

Byamba-ochir Garmaabazar, who is aiming to earn a berth for his Paralympic debut in Tokyo, said he was "shocked" after he learned the news of the postponement online.

Now into his third month with his Japanese hosts, who are covering the group's expenses, his goal is to "improve as much as possible until next year, and meet the expectation of those in Yaizu," which has supported the team as its host town since 2016.

The Mongolian para athletics team is not the only group of athletes from overseas staying in Japan despite the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

In Izumisano, Osaka Prefecture, six marathon runners and two coaches from Mongolia have not been able to leave Japan although their training camp was scheduled to end on March 17.

South Sudan's athletics team remains in Maebashi, northwest of Tokyo, after the Gunma Prefecture city said in March it will continue to host the athletes until at least July.

However, the current virus pandemic has forced athletes and municipality officials to come up with precautionary measures as the number of confirmed cases of infection continues to rise in Japan.

The team in Yaizu spends most of their time either at the training facilities or their hotel rooms. Although the team used to eat out for lunch, the members now have takeout meals in their rooms to limit contact with others.

"I wear a mask whenever I go out. I try to go to bed early, before 10 p.m. and eat well to increase my immunity," Unurmaa said.

A 28-year-old competing in the F40 classification for athletes with short stature, she said she copes with her longing for home by calling her family every day. "I've never been overseas for so long, so there's a part of me that wants to go home," she added.

Since the outlook of the virus remains unclear, Yaizu has already reserved the team's accommodation until the end of May and is considering extending until June if necessary.

For the four Mongolian athletes, who usually train twice a day on weekdays at an outdoor field or a training gym, being stranded in Yaizu also represents an opportunity to be grasped.

Indeed, if there's a silver lining, it may be that the longer they remain here, the better their chances of competing if the games go ahead as rescheduled next year.

"I can concentrate on practicing because there is an environment that allows me to train," said Garmaabazar, who competes in the men's 800 and 1,500 meters in the T46 classification for athletes with upper limb disability.

"The facilities here have more to offer compared to those in Mongolia, so I'm very grateful. I try to make the most of it every single day."

According to manager Enkhbaatar, it is difficult for athletes to train every day in Mongolia, where the cold weather also prevents them from practicing outdoors until around May.

"There is absolutely no disadvantage of remaining in Yaizu," he said. "The athletes' performance has been improving and some of them have recorded their personal best."

Yaizu, a city with a population of about 139,000, is one of the 493 municipalities in Japan that have registered to welcome athletes from abroad under the government's host town initiative.

The initiative aims at providing opportunities for local residents to interact with overseas athletes through activities before and after the games.

While the coronavirus has prevented the city from hosting such events, several residents have reached out to the team by presenting the athletes with hand-drawn portraits or offering them local foods.

"Since people learned about the team staying in the city, more people have stood up to show support and encouragement," said Satoshi Onoda, a city official in charge of the program.

"I think it is difficult for athletes both physically and mentally, but they don't show it. It is our job to support them so they don't feel so stressed," he said.

In Izumisano, where the Mongolian marathon team remains stranded, city officials have been trying to gather information about chartered flights by the Mongolian government.

However, a city official said some athletes have voiced concerns that even if they return to Mongolia, they will have to be isolated for weeks, which will prevent them from training.

"I hope the situation with the virus ends so all athletes from around the world can train and compete fairly in the lead-up to the Paralympics," said Enkhbaatar.

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