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The postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics because of the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has upended a carefully planned sporting calendar calibrated to line up with the Summer Games.

When the decision was taken in March to delay the games for safety reasons, nearly half of the athletes that had hoped to be in Tokyo for the Olympics still did not know for sure, and were immediately put in limbo.

As much of the world instituted strict lockdowns earlier in the year, to help slow the spread of the novel coronavirus, professional and elite sport events around the world had been cancelled.

By the time the International Olympic Committee and Tokyo 2020 announced new dates for the Olympics in March, only 57% of qualification spots had been allocated.

Any Olympic Games qualification process must be approved by the IOC Executive Board, even if International Federations are the bodies that oversee the process.

Qualification pathways for the Tokyo Games had been approved in 2018 but by the end of March only four sports had allocated all of their quotas, in a process overseen by the host country’s National Olympic Committee.

This July the IOC approved the new qualification process for Tokyo 2020, which extended the qualification period until June 29, 2021. That meant athletes had nearly an whole extra year to meet qualifying standards for the games, although for many it would come after major training disruption.

World Athletics paused its Olympic qualification events until Dec. 1 to give athletes sufficient time to train. | REUTERS
World Athletics paused its Olympic qualification events until Dec. 1 to give athletes sufficient time to train. | REUTERS

Waiting to qualify

For most sports, organizing qualification ahead of the rescheduled Tokyo 2020 meant simply extending the qualification period to stretch into 2021 with the new cutoff dates.

One activities resumed, these federations continued the existing process with rescheduled events and no changes to quotas or the number of athletes that would be going to Tokyo.

But for sports that award Olympic qualification spots through world rankings or at events that had been due to take place in the run-up to Tokyo 2020, the pandemic threw a major wrench in plans.

Many such events offer athletes the chance to qualify when positions are reallocated due to past events, and balance representation geographically.

To account for the new timeline, all existing qualification spots were honored by International Federations, while events were quickly rescheduled to afford athletes the opportunities that had been upended by the virus crisis.

But rescheduling also had to avoid conflicts with events already arranged for 2021, such as world championships set to take place after Tokyo 2020.

World Athletics has pivoted its new competition schedule to feature more one-day meets in order to reduce possible further disruptions due to the novel coronavirus. | POOL / VIA REUTERS
World Athletics has pivoted its new competition schedule to feature more one-day meets in order to reduce possible further disruptions due to the novel coronavirus. | POOL / VIA REUTERS

A spokesperson from Tokyo 2020 told The Japan Times that the committee “never made” any suggestions about potentially reducing the number of athletes competing at next year’s Olympics because of COVID-19 or the upended qualifying process.

In addition, Tokyo 2020 said it had “not heard any concerns from IFs and NOCs regarding the qualification process,” referring to international federations and national Olympic committees.

International federations that will stage rescheduled test events will continue to use those events for Olympic qualification. This includes the FINA Artistic Swimming Qualification Tournament and Diving World Cup, as well as the 2021 Artistic Gymnastics World Cup.

“Seventeen test events were postponed as a result of the COVID-19 Pandemic,” the Tokyo 2020 spokesperson said. “In addition to the 17 test events, due to the venue change from Tokyo to Sapporo occurring after its test event had already taken place in Tokyo, a marathon test event in Sapporo has also been added. This amounts to 18 remaining test events in total.”

Big changes, new procedures

For a few sports, COVID-19 meant rethinking a large part of the Olympic qualifying process to meet the new timeline and optimize athlete safety.

World Athletics uses two different tracks for its qualification, a time standard and a world ranking.

Half of its athletes have already qualified for the Games by meeting a qualifying standard, but the athletics world paused its competition schedule until Dec. 1 to allow athletes the chance to train before having to qualify through world ranking position.

“I think had (World Athletics) allowed Olympic qualification to take place this summer it would have created a lot of unfair advantages for athletes from certain countries,” Katerina Stefanidi, the 2016 Olympic gold medalist in pole vaulting, told the Japan Times about the shutdown of Olympic qualifying.

Stefanidi had already qualified for the 2020 Olympic Games by meeting the necessary qualifying standard, so the shutdown did not affect her personally. However, at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic she had been among those voicing concerns about how athletes felt their lives were at risk without a postponed Tokyo 2020.

Pole vaulter Katerina Stefanidi, a gold medalist at Rio 2016 and a member of the World Athletics Athletes' Commission, is concerned about athletes being able to travel and compete ahead of next summer's games. | USA TODAY / VIA REUTERS
Pole vaulter Katerina Stefanidi, a gold medalist at Rio 2016 and a member of the World Athletics Athletes’ Commission, is concerned about athletes being able to travel and compete ahead of next summer’s games. | USA TODAY / VIA REUTERS

Another area that has been sidelined because of the pandemic is the number of out-of-competition anti-doping tests, due to travel restrictions and social distancing. Without such measures in place, it made sense for World Athletics to pause competitions that would count towards qualifying, Stefanidi added.

World Athletics says it is working on organizing a balanced schedule to allow athletes all over the world opportunities to compete enough times to earn their spot in Tokyo through their world rankings.

To do so, the federation has pivoted to scheduling meets that take place in a single day, according to World Athletics Senior Communications Manager Yannis Nikolaou.

“We are working on a competition schedule of one-day meetings from January to June 2021 — to ensure that a good number of meetings will go ahead to offer the additional qualification opportunities to the athletes across the world, before the qualifying period finishes in June 2021,” Nikolau said. “We have scheduled and announced the World Indoor Tour, the Continental Tour and Diamond League dates, and we are optimistic that we will stage one-day meetings on every continent.”

When events get underway in January, the federation aims to release a newly updated COVID-19 protocol for athletes to adhere to, Nikolaou added.

As a member of the World Athletics Athletes’ Commission, Stefanidi says she is worried about how equitable access to meets in 2021 will be for athletes to qualify for Tokyo 2020.

Even with events on each continent, travel restrictions can change at any moment. And the future of any event — including the Olympics — is still subject to how the virus is managed between now and July, even with a vaccine.

No event that is planned is set in stone, even if federations have worked to create COVID-19 free spaces for athletes. Cases continue to rise in countries like Japan and the United States as the pandemic enters its second year.

“I think that for the Olympics to take place, travel and competitions will have to resume to a satisfactory standard anyways,” Stefanidi said.

“However, we need to wait and see how the situation will unfold in 2021. Will athletes be able to travel and compete? I don’t know, but I hope so,” said Stafanidi. “This is my personal opinion, but if athletes are not able to travel in order to compete then I don’t know how confident I feel about the Olympics actually taking place.”

COVID-19’s impact on Olympic qualifying
Sports
Qualifying completed Cycling (Road and Track), Equestrian (Dressage, Eventing and Jumping),
Hockey, Softball
Qualification timeline extended Archery, Artistic Swimming, Baseball, Basketball 3×3, Boxing, Canoe (Slalom and Sprint), Diving, Fencing, Football, Golf, Gymnastics (Artistic, Rhythmic and Trampoline), Handball, Karate, Marathon Swimming, Modern Pentathlon,
Rugby, Sailing, Shooting, Sport Climbing,
Surfing, Table Tennis, Tennis, Triathlon, Water Polo
Minor adjustments made to qualifying system Rowing, Swimming, Badminton, Skateboarding, Taekwondo, Judo, Wrestling
Major adjustments made to qualifying system Athletics, Cycling (BMX Freestyle, BMX Racing and Mountain Bike),
Weightlifting, Basketball

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