Virus already causing Olympic chaos at qualifying events

DÜSSELDORF, Germany (AP) — For many athletes and teams who have yet to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics, the global virus outbreak is spoiling plans and ruining hopes.

Qualifying events are being canceled or postponed almost daily, and time is running out for athletes to prove they meet the standard.

Rowing was the latest sport to find itself in flux on Tuesday when it canceled two World Cups, the European Olympic and Paralympic qualifying regatta, and the final Paralympic qualifier. All were to be held in Italy from April 10 to May 10. World Rowing said it wants to relocate the qualifiers and was talking with other countries. It hoped to offer good news next week.

For now, the Asia and Oceania qualifying regatta, and the final qualifying regatta are still going ahead on from May 17-19 in Lucerne, Switzerland.

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On Monday, the International Judo Federation canceled all Olympic qualifiers through April 30, including a Grand Slam and two Grand Prix. Another Grand Prix last weekend, in Morocco, was canceled earlier. Judo qualifying ends on May 25.

“It is of paramount importance to keep the judo family safe in these difficult times, and also to ensure fair chances for all athletes engaged in the Olympic qualification,” the IJF said.

Other sports as diverse as weightlifting, swimming and badminton have also been postponed indefinitely or canceled outright.

The African weightlifting championships in Mauritius next month were postponed on Tuesday. The Asian champs set a week later in Uzbekistan were canceled last week.

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Because of the virus, the international governing body is allowing lifters yet to qualify, to register for major qualifying competitions out of their region, such as the European, Pan American or even the Oceania champs.

The Badminton World Federation, however, has refused to extend the qualifying period, and noted players from its leading nation, China, have been healthy and passed tests for COVID-19.

Badminton has lost three tournaments alone this month in Europe — in Germany, Portugal, and Poland — with the end of qualifying rapidly approaching on April 26.

One of its biggest events outside of the world championships, the All England Open, is going ahead on Wednesday in Birmingham.

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Chinese teams have pulled out of numerous events worldwide, and others like Russia gymnasts teams have cut back their schedules.

For most people, the new coronavirus causes only mild or moderate symptoms, such as fever and cough. For some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can cause more severe illness, including pneumonia.

The vast majority of people recover from the new virus. According to the World Health Organization, people with mild illness recover in about two weeks, while those with more severe illness may take three to six weeks to recover. In mainland China, where the virus first exploded, more than 80,000 people have been diagnosed and more than 58,000 have so far recovered.

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach wrote an open letter to athletes last week saying the IOC was working with other sports bodies “to ensure a fair Olympic qualification,” but didn’t say how it might work.

“I want to personally thank you for all this flexibility and solidarity, which is the true Olympic spirit,” he added.

When the virus was still largely confined to China earlier in the year, events were moved — boxing and taekwondo qualifiers to Jordan, basketball to Serbia, triathlon to Spain. Now the little space left in the calendar is vanishing. The Olympics open July 24.

When qualifying events do take place, athletes may compete in unequal conditions. Many countries require quarantine for visitors from areas affected by the virus.

Endurance athletes in particular are feeling the pinch.

Evan Dunfee of Canada is the world championship bronze medalist in the 50-kilometer walk, the longest event on the Olympic athletics program. Athletes need weeks of recovery between races. Rescheduling qualifiers will be of little use, he argues.

If athletes have to race in June, “you’ll be putting all your eggs into the qualifying basket and wouldn’t be able to recover in times for the games,” Dunfee wrote on Twitter on Monday.

The virus is already affected the Tokyo Games. Test events in rugby and shooting have been canceled. Spectators have been barred from the lighting of the Olympic flame at Ancient Olympia on Thursday, and its arrival ceremony in Japan on March 20 has been downsized.