With just over one year to go until the postponed Tokyo Paralympics, athletes are finding ways to adapt their training programs around coronavirus restrictions to ensure they stay in tip-top shape while protecting themselves.
The complications of the postponement are rippling beyond the games themselves and throwing athletes' training into chaos. The forced break has made it more challenging for those who have not yet qualified.
The new dates for the Paralympic Games were confirmed in late March. They will now take place from Aug. 24 to Sept. 5, 2021, 365 days from Monday and almost exactly one year later than originally planned.
Para sports have restarted amid a new normal, with events slowly resuming both locally and internationally. The U.S. Open wheelchair tennis tournament in New York in September and World Paratriathlon Series race in Montreal in October are two of the high-profile examples.
Revised dates and regulations for Tokyo Games qualification are being revealed, with the final qualification regatta for rowing to take place in Gavirate, Italy, from May 7 to 9 next year, and the final qualifying stage for canoeing set for May 12 to 16 next year in Szeged, Hungary.
The International Paralympic Committee has noted athletes with disabilities may be more vulnerable to the worst impacts of COVID-19, the disease suffered by those infected with the virus. So, even before the question of how the Paralympics can take place comes the question of how training and qualification competitions can be held safely.
German sports club and Paralympic training center TSV Bayer 04 Leverkusen, home club of Paralympic champions Markus Rehm and Heinrich Popow, had to close temporarily in mid-March.
Jorg Frischmann, the club's director of sport, said only a limited number of elite athletes have been granted access to the facility since April under strict health and safety protocols which limit use to a maximum of two hours per person.
In Brazil, which has the second highest number of coronavirus cases worldwide after the United States, the Team Brazil Training Center reopened in July but high-ranking Brazilian Paralympic Committee technical official Jonas Freire said athletes are limited in how they can train.
With coronavirus-related travel bans, it will be a while until athletes can take part in overseas competitions, he said.
Many national Olympic and Paralympic committees will have implemented hygiene and infection control guidelines for athletes to follow to ensure they can safely return to training and competition.
But concern has been raised that para athletes may be at more risk of severe outcomes if they contract COVID-19, and athletes with particular impairments need to take more stringent precautions to protect themselves.
A Tokyo 2020 organizing committee source said entry requirements for all traveling athletes will be the same, with every Olympic and Paralympic athlete and related parties having to submit a negative polymerase chain reaction test result to enter the country.
But those with severe disabilities like cervical spine injuries or cerebral palsy often have other health conditions like respiratory problems that put them into a high-risk group.
Visually impaired athletes must make higher-risk tactile engagements with their environment, feeling possibly virus-carrying objects and surfaces with their hands to navigate and read, and physical distancing creates problems for athletes that require a sighted guide.
"Strategic testing systems will be needed," said another source close to the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee, adding that athletes and officials will need to be separated at venues and equipment shared by athletes must be regularly sanitized and disinfected.
A coronavirus task force formed by the government will meet next month to consider expert opinions and discuss a return to sport for people with disabilities.
But the issues of concern are not limited to the roughly 4,400 athletes who will compete at the Paralympic Games, measures will also need to be taken to safely accommodate spectators — if they are any at all.
Approximately 970,000 tickets for the Paralympics have been sold to date through the official ticketing website. Tickets for the delayed games are still valid for the equivalent 2021 events, but anyone who cannot make it is eligible for a refund.
Organizers are looking into a number of possibilities that will make the Tokyo Games as safe as possible during a pandemic, such as cutting down on spectator numbers and making adjustments to seating.
In early February, before Japan confirmed its first coronavirus death and before the postponement of the Olympics and Paralympics was announced, the Japanese Paralympic Committee set a target of winning a record 20 gold medals on home turf.
But with so many unknowns around the games' staging, including which athletes and nations will qualify and attend, it is unclear whether such targets remain realistic.
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