Welcome to our new column, The Debate, where the Mercury sport team discuss the big issues in Illawarra, national and international sport. This week football writer JOSH BARTLETT and rugby union reporter CAMERON MEE discuss the Olympic and Paralympic Games postponement.
BARTLETT: Well, Cameron. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to sweep the globe and countries move into stricter lockdowns, we have been given at least one light at the end of the tunnel. Olympic Games organisers have this week announced that Tokyo 2020 will become Tokyo 2021, with the event to take place next July and August.
As someone who planned to make the long trip to Japan and attend this year's Games, what are your thoughts on the decision?
MEE: It's unfortunate, but it got to the point that the International Olympic Committee had no choice. With numerous countries around the world in lockdown, athletes haven't been able to train and qualification events have been cancelled. I would have felt uncomfortable being at the Olympics in those circumstances.
One of the interesting things for me moving forward will be watching how the athletes manage this extra year of preparation. There's a real risk of burn out and I think it will become clear next year who has managed this period the best. How do you feel the Australian athletes are placed to cope with this one year delay?
BARTLETT: It's a bizarre situation. You've got to think, plenty of athletes begin their road to the Olympics four years before the event. So many would have been ready to peak at Tokyo 2020. Can they fire themselves up for another year in the grind.
As social isolation becomes a factor, you have to consider the effect that will have on athletes. Individuals should be okay, they may have to adjust their training schedules, but what about teams like the Matildas? Caitlin Foord and her teammates rode that emotional rollercoaster to qualify for the Olympics, booking their spot with a 2-1 win over Vietnam earlier this month. Now the players have been separated. How are they meant to gel when they can't even spend time together?
MEE: That example shows why the IOC had to delay the Games. Hopefully, in six months time all these restrictions will be lifted and the Matildas will be able to convene for a number of pre-Olympics camps. If this drags on until December and into the new year, that's when it could start to get a bit precarious and stressful for all involved.
On an organisational level, the postponement of the Olympics will force a number of sports to reschedule their major events in the next few years. Have you had a look at how many competitions will be affected by changes made to one sporting event?
BARTLETT: You would imagine that, once the COVID-19 pandemic starts to ease, the focus will shift back to the Olympics. And I think it's fair to say that sports involved in the Games should be shaped around Tokyo 2021. But the postponement has caused a few logistical nightmares.
Take a look at Wollongong's Dylan Ryan and his Olyroos teammates. Many current players will be over the under-23 age cut-off by July 2021. After putting in the hard yards to qualify for the Games, wouldn't it be cruel to not allow them to play? I know their coach Graham Arnold has already raised this issue in the press. Do you think Olympic organisers should make exceptions in these kind of cases?
MEE: Absolutely, they've already said all athletes who have qualified for the Games will maintain that qualification, so I think it should be no different in this situation. Dylan is 19, so he'll be okay, but some of his teammates will miss out if they don't change the age limit. Officially, the players haven't been named in the Olympic team, so the IOC has some wiggle room, but it would be unfair if they held firm to the under 23 rule.
On the flip side of this issue are those athletes, like Madeline Heiner, who were racing the clock to recover from injuries before the Games. This delay gives them an extra year to qualify and be at their best when the Olympics roll around. So amid the doom and gloom, there is a silver lining for some athletes. Have you noticed any other positives about the delay to the Olympics?
BARTLETT: The biggest one I can think of is crowds. If we can work together, by staying isolated, to get rid of this virus, then you would like to think the world will somewhat return to normal by next July. It would be truly bizarre to watch an Olympic Games without spectators cheering on their country's idols. It would be virtually impossible to get crowd numbers with restrictions on flights across the world.
We were given a sneak peak at sport behind closed doors with the NRL, AFL, cricket and A-League, plus AFLW and W-League, going ahead with no crowds. It was a weird experience - you really missed that roar of the crowd at key moments. Instead, you could just hear players cheering and crickets. It does make you think though, has the world of sport changed forever?
MEE: I actually didn't mind the lack of crowds. It was different, but it certainly didn't detract from the viewing experience for me.
Whether sport has changed forever is something I've thought about a lot over the last few days. I think it's fair to say we'll see some changes. The nature of some competitions will change, Super Rugby comes to mind, administrators will, hopefully, recognise the need to save for a rainy day, clubs will hopefully become more sustainable.
I disagree with the doomsday predictions of some commentators who feel we'll see a return to 1950s stye semi-pro competitions. What changes do you think we'll see once sport returns?
BARTLETT: It's hard to imagine that sport won't change and adapt. It wouldn't surprise me if we saw an adjustment, for example, where there must be a seat between spectators at stadiums. It would halve the crowd capacity, but could be a must for health and safety.
Another change we may see is a concerted effort to cut down on player contact, so maybe less high fives and fist bumps. Mind you, it does make you wonder. Wouldn't that idea be redundant if players are tackling each other for two hours? Either way, I think many, just like myself, will be relieved to see live sport return. Even if it looks a little different.
MEE: You're right, fans are eager for some, any, sport right now. Given everything we've been through, the Olympics are going to be an even bigger party when they finally take place next year.
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