Israeli Athletes Feeling the Pressure as Coronavirus Threatens Tokyo Olympic Games

Israel's Olympic committee called on athletes to think seriously about any trip to a training camp or competition

Protesters holding placards during a demonstration against the Olympics near the 'J-Village' that will host the start of the Olympic torch relay in Naraha, Fukushima prefecture, February 29, 2020.
Charly Triballeau/AFP

Coronavirus is casting a heavy shadow on the Olympic Games, which is due to open on July 24 in Tokyo. Japan itself has become a significant center of the virus, largely due to the luxury cruise ship on which hundreds of people were infected. But even if the Olympic Games take place as planned – and senior members of the International Olympics Committee are insisting that this will be the case – coronavirus is endangering the Olympic dream of quite a number of Israeli athletes. Many of the qualification rounds take place in Italy and Japan, and who knows where else the epidemic will spread to in the coming weeks.

The Israeli Olympic Committee recently issued instructions to the athletes, in which the main recommendation is to think seriously about any trip to a training camp or competition. The Israel Judo Association, for example, chose to fly to Japan for an abbreviated training camp, but the Japanese decided to cancel the arrival of the delegations due to the virus.

At least six crucial competitions for a series of Israeli athletes will be taking place in the coming months in Italy and Japan, some of which provide the final qualification for the Olympic Games, or constitute the last opportunity to qualify. In a probable scenario, these events will move to another location. In the worst case scenarios, they will be postponed to another date and adversely affect preparations, or they may be canceled entirely. The pre-Olympic tournament in women’s water polo for example, which was supposed to take place beginning next week in Italy with the participation of the Israeli team, has been postponed and nobody knows yet where and when it will take place.

Israeli rower Danny Friedman
Detlev Seyb

One of the Israeli athletes who is depending on the fate of the competitions in Italy is rower Danny Friedman. He is already in Italy and training there. “We spend all day training,” says Friedman. “You’re stuck at home or in the rowing club all the time. It’s depressing. Even in the club, the Italians aren’t allowed to train – only athletes who come from abroad and Italian professionals.”

The European qualifier in rowing, in which Friedman is supposed to participate, will be held in Varese, on the lake where he is now training. “He has to finish in one of the first three places in order to get to Tokyo, and that seems to be a realistic mission. But now it isn’t clear whether that competition will take place at all. Meanwhile, all the rowing competitions that were supposed to take place in Italy in March have been postponed or are in doubt.

“There was supposed to be an international competition held in Positano last week and they postponed it. They canceled it this week too, so meanwhile there’s no competition,” he says. “On March 21, an Italian championship is scheduled, in which I’m supposed to participate, and it’s not clear yet whether or not it will take place.” Friedman has no reason to return to Israel, either – even less so if he will have to be in quarantine for two weeks, during a most crucial period for him.

“The competitions that are being canceled are crucial and important,” he says. “We built a program in which we’re supposed to prepare for the competitions. The Italian championship is on a high level and will enable me to see where I stand and what I’m ready for. Meanwhile the trainers here think that if there’s no competition next week, they’ll organize something themselves – a competition among us, in order to get things moving and not to sit by idly. As far as the coming competitions are concerned – we’ll see.”

For the sailors in the Men’s 470, Maor Abu and Yoav Rooz, who are vying for qualification for the Olympics against Nitai Hasson and Tal Harari, the problem is different: They are both soldiers, and because of the virus, the army has prohibited its soldiers from flying to Italy, and it’s not at all certain that it will make an exception for the two sailors, who are still in active service.

More than the virus itself

This worries them more than the virus itself. “In the event that the competition isn’t canceled or postponed, the army is capable of suddenly failing to approve such a thing,” says Rooz. “And the dream would be over at that moment. From that point of view, an alternative location is preferable.” Rooz is not exaggerating: If the army doesn’t allow the soldiers to fly to Italy, their Olympic dream, at least as far as Tokyo is concerned, is likely to come to an end.

Olympic sailing hopefuls Yoav Rooz and Maor Abu.
Yoav Rooz

The 470 sailors and Friedman are not the only ones who could be hurt by the situation. In addition to the rowing and sailing competitions, in April a taekwondo competition is also scheduled to take place in Milan, Italy’s coronavirus “capital.”

In late April, there will be a qualification round in Tokyo in which the synchronized swimming team is supposed to participate, in late May a qualification competition in open water swimming at the Olympic site in Yokohama, Japan, and in June there's the prestigious Seven Hills swimming competition in Rome, the last qualifier before the Olympic Games. At the moment, it seems that all these competitions will take place as planned, but even if not, it’s hard to believe that no suitable replacement will be found.

Israeli athletes are already competing in countries considered to be at high risk for coronavirus. Lonah Chemtai Salpeter, who chalked up a historic achievement and reached the eighth best result ever in a marathon, did so in the prestigious Tokyo race held in a format for elite runners only, due to the virus' outbreak.

The Israeli surfers spent a month and a half in Australia to participate in the World Surfing Championship, which took place as scheduled. Even competitions that are canceled are expected to find, or at least to try to find, an alternative venue. International sports have not come to a halt, and when so much money is invested in the Olympics, it’s hard to imagine them being canceled entirely.