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Taking athletes to the pandemic Olympics is a logistical nightmare

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(Bloomberg) – Ensuring that 11,000 athletes from more than 200 countries descend on a chosen city over the course of 16 days is a logistical challenge at best. Now consider doing it at the end of a global pandemic that has disrupted airline flight schedules, closed international borders, and made any movement impossible without hits and multiple Covid tests.

For hundreds of official Olympic organizers waiting for the Tokyo Games to start in just 18 days, it is a major headache. Forget medal counts and post-race parties (to the extent they’re allowed), getting to Japan on time is half the battle.

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The team from Fiji, a small island nation in the South Pacific best known for its pristine beaches and tropical seas, is not so much by flying coach as cargo: the men’s and women’s Rugby Sevens, plus a handful of other athletes, including some swimmers. and sailors. they are flying from Nadi to Narita in a service that generally carries refrigerated seafood such as tuna and mahi mahi, and express mail.

“Traveling is definitely a great challenge,” said Lorraine Mar, director of the Fiji Sports Association and National Olympic Committee. “Fiji Airways is not running any commercial flights at this time, so we are going on a cargo run.”

Mar said Fiji was trying to coordinate with other South Pacific nations to “make a milk tour around the other islands to collect everyone, but it was not commercially viable.”

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The Papua New Guinea team plans to fly to Brisbane and then Tokyo, while the Samoa team will likely go first to Auckland and then fly with Air New Zealand, he said.

Other teams discover that they have to travel thousands of miles in the wrong direction before heading to Japan.

Under normal circumstances, the Sri Lankan team would have taken a flight to Singapore and from there to Tokyo. But with Covid cases still averaging nearly 2,000 a day, Sri Lanka, an island south of India, is on the lists of banned countries. Singapore does not allow anyone with a recent travel history to transit the city-state.

As a result, the 10-person team in disciplines including badminton, judo and archery, is booked on Qatar Airways via Doha, according to Sri Lanka’s National Olympic Committee Chairman Suresh Subramaniam. They have a backup flight on SriLankan Airlines in case the situation changes.

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“I hope and pray that no one gets sick once we go to Japan,” Subramaniam said. “We have an additional doctor flying with us this time to take care of any Covid problems. We are taking all precautions. “

Although most of the athletes have been fully vaccinated and the Games organizers require negative Covid tests prior to arrival, there have already been some discomforts. A member of the Ugandan Olympic team tested positive in Japan last month, despite having been inoculated earlier.

Even the fastest woman in the world cannot avoid all the logistical hurdles on the way to this year’s extraordinary Olympics, which will be held without international spectators and with strict social distancing measures including rules on how many hours after the race athletes must leave the stadium. Town.

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Jamaican sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, the favorite in the women’s 100 meters, faces a maze of connecting flights, stopovers and paperwork just to get to Tokyo. “I have a Jamaican passport, so it is even more difficult for me to travel,” said the two-time Olympic champion.

For the 34-year-old sprinter, the journey is a journey of more than 13,000 kilometers. Fraser-Pryce anticipates that she will travel from her home in Kingston to Miami, then to London for a connecting flight to Tokyo. Because the pandemic has high fares, the cheapest flight from Kingston to Tokyo in economy class costs almost $ 5,000 on Expedia.com

Meanwhile, the Brazilian delegation, a large group of nearly 300 athletes who compete in events from fencing to skateboarding, shooting, swimming and gymnastics, had to scramble for flights at Deutsche Lufthansa AG after their original airline, Air Canada, canceled. flights that would have taken the flight. team via Toronto.

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“Due to the pandemic, we had to make some necessary changes that required creativity,” said the president of the Brazilian Olympic Committee, Paulo Wanderley Teixeira, adding that even bringing the sports team to Tokyo has been a “real war operation.”

“We also had some surprises regarding airline tickets. For example, we had a contract with an airline and we had already paid 80%, but they changed their route and canceled, ”said Teixeria. Flying with Lufthansa through Frankfurt is more expensive, but at least the team can pick up some of its athletes who train in Europe en route, he said.

Another logistical problem particular to holding games during a pandemic has been that many athletes have not been able to train where they normally would. Difficulty traveling internationally has also made getting to the necessary qualifying events extremely difficult.

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The Jamaica track team would normally have trained and competed in Europe for a few weeks before the games. An earlier plan to train in Tottori, about 400 miles west of Tokyo, was also scrapped, according to Fraser-Pryce. That means you will have less time to resolve the passing of the baton to other teammates in the relay.

Argentine sailor Santiago Lange, who won gold in Rio in 2016, is one of the luckiest, escaping from South America to Sicily in Italy, where the wind and weather conditions are similar to those in Japan. He and his crewmate Cecilia Carranza Saroli are now in Barcelona, ​​awaiting their flight to Tokyo later this week.

“Normally we have at least 90 days to know the conditions, and now we will only have eight. Those eight days for our particular sport are not enough, ”said Lange, who was unable to navigate Argentina for several months due to Covid restrictions last year.

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In the couple’s rented house in Sicily, they posted photos of Mount Fuji to keep them mentally connected. “Under normal circumstances, we would compete in at least 10 competitions a year. We did only two last year, ”he said.

And of course, as athletes in remote locations that are not international hubs are checking their luggage and boarding passes for the last time, the virus that has devastated so many lives, hopes and dreams is never far from your thoughts.

“We tend to think about the race,” said Selemon Barega, an Ethiopian long-distance runner who competes primarily in the 5,000 meters. “But now the fear of the virus is also running in our minds.”

© 2021 Bloomberg LP

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