Three women who qualified for Tokyo 2020 reflect on the unprecedented decision to postpone the games.
The Tokyo Olympics was arguably the biggest sporting casualty of the coronavirus pandemic, postponed in March in an unprecedented move as a third of the world was plunged into COVID-19-related lockdowns.
More than 11,000 elite athletes from 33 different sports were due to compete in the games – for most the pinnacle of sporting achievement.
A pared-down Olympics is now scheduled to be held for two weeks from July 23, 2021, with some adjustments for the pandemic. The Paralympics will follow.
Even as vaccines are finally rolled out, it is still not 100 percent certain the event will even be able to proceed in 2021.
Al Jazeera spoke to three athletes from the Asia Pacific region to find out how they were affected by the postponement.
Kelsey-Lee Barber, Australia
Everyone wants to know how she became the javelin women’s world champion.
“It’s the question I get asked the most,” said Kelsey-Lee Barber, laughing, after Al Jazeera put forward the same question.
“Javelin is quite an unusual event,” she admitted. “Especially in a country like Australia where team sports are the focus.”
Born in South Africa, Barber moved to Australia as a child. In high school, she threw the discus but her coach encouraged her to dabble in other field events such as shot put and javelin.
It was when Barber won the javelin event in the 2008 Pacific School Games that she realised it was the sport for her.
“This is the event that’s going to take me to the Olympics,” she recalled thinking. “This is what I want to do with my life.”
Her gut was right – 29-year-old Barber is now not only the world champion, winning gold in Doha in 2019 but also has the 12th-longest javelin throw on record. She threw an incredible 67.70m (222 feet) in Lucerne last year.
Barber is preparing for her second Olympics and has fortunately not been as affected by the COVID-19 lockdowns as other sportspeople have – after all, athletics is predominantly an individual event.
“We had to move off-site at the beginning and we were training in our garages and local parks,” Barber said. “When COVID was announced as a pandemic, we thought [the Olympic Committee] would do everything in their power to make it happen.”
By late March, several countries – including Australia and Canada – had officially withdrawn their teams from the Tokyo games, citing concerns for their health.
“When things started to escalate as rapidly as they did, I think that’s when I started realising that maybe Tokyo wouldn’t go ahead this year,” says Barber.
While disappointed that she did not get to compete this year, Barber says she thinks it was the right thing to do.
“It’s given me a different opportunity this year,” she mused. “I’ve really been able to focus on looking after my body this year, and that’s a huge plus going forward.”
“I’ve potentially put a few extra years onto my career because of the work I’ve been able to do this year.”
“This year has also given me an opportunity to just be me,” Barber added, smiling. “I’ve still put in a lot of training but for the first time in a very long time, athletics hasn’t had to be the number one priority.”
Farah Ann Abdul Hadi, Malaysia
Malaysian gymnast Farah Ann Abdul Hadi was supposed to spend July competing beneath the lofty roof of the 12,000 seat Ariake Gymnastics Centre in Tokyo, the first Malaysian woman ever to qualify for the competition.
Instead, the 26-year-old was working on her routines in Malaysia’s National Sports Complex in the southern suburbs of Kuala Lumpur, putting in the hours in the gym and with physiotherapy and sharing regular updates with her 340,000 Instagram followers.
Looking back, Farah says that while she was “a little bit upset” as talk swirled that the Olympics would be cancelled, the delay was perhaps a blessing in disguise, allowing her body time to fully recover after back-to-back competitions in 2019 and multiple injuries throughout her international career.
“I don’t train in pain any more,” she told Al Jazeera on a video call from Bukit Jalil. “Since I’m more of a senior gymnast already – I’m 26 and obviously, my body isn’t like it was when I was 16 any more – it’s quality rather than quantity. To perfect the skills and make sure my body is in good health for 2021.”
Farah took up gymnastics when she was three, attending classes alongside her older sister. “My parents are both sporty and they wanted their children to do sports too,” she said, explaining how she “fell in love” with gymnastics. “I was also a hyperactive child,” she says, smiling.
She began competing for her state when she was six and training with the national squad two years later. Her first international competition was in 2010.
Artistic gymnastics is a test of agility, flexibility and strength and has been part of the Summer Games since they were held in Amsterdam in 1928.
Women compete in four disciplines – the uneven bars, beam, vault and floor – in a sport that has long been dominated by the United States, Russia and China. So far, Malaysia has had more success in badminton, diving and cycling.
Farah enjoys the floor the most.
“I love expressing myself and performing for the crowd and it’s also where I can show my strength and my artistry,” she said.
She has a “history” with the beam, she says ruefully of the 10-cm wide (4 inches) and five-metre (16.4-feet) long piece of wooden apparatus, which is 1.25 metres (4.1 feet) off the floor. “I like the beam, but it doesn’t really like me back.”
It was a mistake on the beam that cost the gymnast a spot in the Rio Games by the tiniest of margins. It was, she says, a “devastating” blow.
She secured her space in Tokyo through the qualifiers at the World Championships in Stuttgart in October 2019. Competing early in the morning, Farah endured a nerve-racking wait until late at night before she knew for sure she had qualified. “Tokyo, here we come!” she messaged her family back in Malaysia.
When Farah first started out in the sport she was inspired by Nastia Liukin who emerged an Olympic All-Around Champion – excelling across the four disciplines – in 2008. Now it is Simone Biles, the most decorated female athlete of the Olympics, who took home four gold medals in Rio and entranced a generation of young women.
This year, toymaker Mattel made a one-of-a-kind Barbie of Farah – part of a project to honour inspirational women from around the world.
Farah hopes by competing in Tokyo, she can show Malaysians that nothing is impossible.
“It’s basically having a goal and reaching that dream you have had since you were eight years old – to go out there with the Malaysian flag on your shoulder,” she said. “I’m very proud to be a female gymnast, to be able to represent my country and to show young girls that you can make a career of sport, and that you can be who you want to be.”
Annabelle Smith, Australia
Australian diver Annabelle Smith was “pretty devastated” when she found out the games had been postponed due to COVID-19.
“When you’ve been working towards something for four years or your entire career – to have it ripped away from you at the last minute was pretty disappointing,” the 27-year-old told Al Jazeera.
Smith has been diving for 15 years and in that time has competed in the London and Rio Olympic Games, winning a bronze medal in Rio.
As such, she feels “grateful” to have already had two Olympic experiences and has spent a lot of time resetting goals and talking to her sports psychologist and coach in preparation for Tokyo 2021 and now feels “re-energised”.
She says some of her Olympic teammates have found it more difficult, noting that that “people plan their careers around the Olympic Games”.
Smith also knows some athletes have been forced into retirement because they had different plans for 2021, such as starting a family, while others have “aged out” of their sport or face an increased risk of injury.
Being a Melbourne-based athlete presented additional difficulties during the lockdown – one of the longest and strictest in the world.
“I just had to train in my living room at home,” she said.
However, she is now fortunate to be back in the training facilities, albeit ensuring they remain COVID-19-safe.
“In our gym sessions, we have to clean the equipment thoroughly and really use our initiative to make sure everything is staying safe.”
However, with COVID-19 far from over, Annabelle says that while she is training and preparing as if the games are going ahead as scheduled, she will “probably cry” if they are postponed again.
“I think it will really be such a positive thing for the world just to get the Olympic Games under way and for people to be able to watch on TV and celebrate something after going through all these challenges of COVID. I’m just excited for it to unite everybody.”
With reporting by Kate Walton in Canberra, Kate Mayberry in Kuala Lumpur, and Ali MC in Melbourne.