A portion of U.S. swimmer Katie Ledecky's training for the Tokyo Olympics included swimming in a neighbor's backyard pool while California was under lockdown due to COVID-19.
In Cuba, there was a period when judoka Idalys Ortiz was not able to train at all because of the pandemic. French swimmer Florent Manaudou, meanwhile, said that since he already trained at a private pool, he was not affected when businesses began closing around him.
The difficulties foreign athletes faced just to get to the Tokyo Olympics were as varied as the athletes themselves. The pandemic disrupted training schedules and travel plans and took a toll on the physical and mental health of many athletes in the months leading up to the Games. Once in Japan, they competed while facing virus prevention measures and life in the so-called Olympic bubble during an unusual Games being staged in a city under a state of emergency.
“The word of the year is ‘resilience,’" Australian swimmer Cate Campbell said. "That is something we have talked about within the Australian team: adapting to everything thrown our way. We knew beforehand these would be a very different Games. All the changes in the lead-in 12 months equipped us to be able to deal with whatever we were going to find here.”
The Olympics officially kicked off on July 23 following a one-year delay, even as virus cases began to surge again in Tokyo and kept increasing as the Games went on. The virus situation in Japan, a public mostly opposed to the Olympics taking place as scheduled and fears of Tokyo 2020 becoming a superspreader event caused some doubt as to whether the Games would even take place.
“I didn’t think it would happen until it actually happened," Swedish swimmer Sarah Sjoestroem said. "I was ready for a cancellation until the last moment. It was kind of stress and I think it was for a lot of athletes. It’s amazing that it actually happened, even one year too late. It has been a long wait. I’m super happy we were able to do this.”
Olympians often have their training finely tuned in a way that allows them to peak during the Games.
But as the pandemic raged around the world and various regions went into lockdowns or instituted other measures, many athletes were forced to alter their training schedules and find ways to remain sharp in their homes.
“Sarah (Sjoestroem) and I were training together before all this and because of the pandemic we had to split up our group and find new training places and it’s been quite crazy,” Denmark’s Pernille Blume said after the women’s 50-meter freestyle.
Having pre-Games training interrupted by the pandemic was a common theme among this year’s Olympians.
“It’s been very difficult to train,” Ortiz said after the women’s over-78 kg judo competition. “My country, as you may know, is going through very dire times due to COVID, and this meant we had to interrupt our training in several locations. I’ve only been able to train for two months in advance of these Games.”
It's not an easy task to decipher how difficulties — or lack thereof for some — in training translated into performance. Ortiz, for instance, won a silver medal.
British swimmer Tom Dean had his training schedule disrupted after contracting the virus twice. Dean tested positive in September 2020 and again in January before bouncing back in time for the Olympic trials and, ultimately, the Tokyo Games. He swam to gold in the men's 200-meter freestyle.
"The second time was much worse than the first," Dean said after that race. "I was quite ill for 10 days and I served the whole isolation period. And it is a slow build back up because of the nature of the sport we do and the nature of the disease. You can’t just go straight back into full-on training. So there were quite a few weeks of building back up.
“That was around January, February, two, three months out from our Olympic trials. I’m stuck inside, unable to even exercise inside my own flat. It was tough to wrap my head around that during an Olympic year, but my coach managed to keep me grounded, and built me back up for a good Olympic trials and we were able to have a solid block between then and now and it paid off."
Fallout from the pandemic also threw travel plans into chaos due to various restrictions in place in the airline industry and difficulties getting into Japan. Some teams had to cancel, or scale back, planned training camps in Japan. As a result, some athletes did not have much time to acclimate to the typical heat and humidity of Japan’s summer.
Russian tennis player Anastasia Pavlyuchenkova arrived in Japan early enough to get some practice in, but said she was still caught off guard by the conditions and needed medical attention during her first-round match. Other players voiced concerns about the heat and the start times for tennis were eventually pushed back to take advantage of cooler temperatures in the late afternoon and evening.
While the climbing competition is held well past the hottest part of the day, the humidity has been an issue.
"It was definitely very humid, but that's kind of definitely what I was expecting because we had the possibility of training here a few days ago," Adam Ondra, the biggest name in the sport, said following the men's combined qualifying round on Tuesday. "For me, it's definitely difficult with the humidity, because it's really difficult to follow my climbing style, which is flowing with my own rhythm and going relatively quickly."
The atmosphere around Games themselves is also different than anyone could have originally expected.
In addition to athletes being cut off from exploring the host nation, there are mostly no fans — foreign or domestic — at these Olympics. Instead of being greeted by venues full of fans, there have been mostly empty seats. In some places, however, such as during swimming, the assortment of teammates and officials present helped create at least some of the usual atmosphere.
“It’s unfortunate we have no spectators, but I feel like the athletes and the coaches that are there create a pretty great atmosphere and it just kind of feels like a swim meet back home in Australia and I pretend everyone’s there cheering for me,” Australian Ariarne Titmus said after winning the women’s 200-meter freestyle on July 28.
"I think when you’re in the zone it doesn’t really matter. It’s really disappointing that the Japanese people can’t come out and watch us and that’s quite sad.”
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