How the postponement of important meets is affecting our athletes
Editor's Note: The severity of the impact of Coronavirus is something that we don't yet fully understand. We know running is not top of mind for parts of our community right now, but as runners we also know the world doesn't stop. We have to keep looking forward to race dates and major championships, and that is what we will do.
In the midst of a still developing pandemic of the Coronavirus, uncertainty reigns supreme across many aspects of life. Not just in other parts of the world, but nationally, locally, and now even in our own social circles and households. These are unprecedented times, as many of us face the realities of working from home, social isolation (and its impacts on mental health), and other impacts, ranging from mild to significant.
We’ve seen the Australian sporting landscape change considerably; The Formula 1 Grand Prix was cancelled last minute, and major sporting competitions will take place without fans until further notice (if at all).
But what does it mean for athletics? With Federal Government bans now in place for organised events over 500 people, Athletics Australia was forced to postpone two critical upcoming meets; the Queensland Track Classic (which is part of the World Athletics Continental Tour), and the National Track and Field Championships.
While the Queensland Track Classic offered good prize money and points, the National Champs postponement is the one that throws our athletes into a spin. For a lot of our best athletes, their last 3 months and their next 6 months is built around Nationals - especially in an Olympic year.
No athlete can remain at their peak indefinitely - being the best of the best involves navigating an increasingly thin line between extracting every ounce of potential and succumbing to injury or illness. And in a year where the Olympic equation is simple (win Nationals and run the standard at some point in the window and you are guaranteed a spot on the team), any athlete with even a faint sense of belief has had the final weekend in March circled on their calendar for months.
Gen Gregson is an Australian record holder and Olympic finalist, and is one of many athletes who are now left running ovals in limbo. As is somewhat standard for Gregson's Melbourne Track Club, she had flights, camps, and races overseas lined up in the months following Nationals.
"It's devastating and disappointing that so much is up in the air but in the same breath, the world is facing all the same emotions with so much unknown and uncertainty. It's a scary time for the whole world so we have to stay positive, keep motivated, and support one another."
I spoke with Australian record holder Catriona Bisset, who already has a qualifying time, on what the postponement of Nationals has meant for her campaign.
“You have to be adaptable, regardless if that’s an injury, a late world champs like we had last year, or a pandemic. At this stage the Olympics are still on and that’s what I’ve been planning for all year.
I’ve been training through the domestic season because I missed a significant amount of training at the end of last year with injury. Honestly I’m only really starting to get my rhythm back now, so in a few months time I’ll be red hot for racing.”
For young 800m runner Carley Thomas, who attends the University of Washington, the impact of COVID-19 has been even more significant. Washington State was one of the first sites of mass positive tests in the US, and competition and school has now been shut down.
“All of my classes and final exams were transferred online and training at the University has been suspended. The fate of next Spring quarter, which is meant to start March 30th is up in the air, so Maurica (Carley’s coach) and I decided it made the most sense for me to fly back to Australia until there's further clarity.
“While nationals' postponement was rattling, I'm conscious that there are bigger things at stake in the world and we are all in the same boat; everyone is being affected. For me, I’m viewing these worldwide cancellations as an obstacle and it’s done nothing to subdue my drive.”
While track athletes like Gregson, Bisset, and Thomas will get their opportunity eventually, the situation for our marathoners is a little cloudy. The spots for the Olympic marathon are selected based on times; the 3 fastest within the qualifying window get to go to Tokyo. Athletes like Milly Clark and Jess Stenson (who recently gave birth to her first child, a son named Billy, and is on the comeback trail) were set to race between late March and the close of the selection window; it looks increasingly unlikely that these athletes will get a chance to compete. Liam Adams on the other hand raced the Lake Biwa Marathon just weeks before most marathons started getting cancelled, becoming Australia’s fastest qualifier for Tokyo.
Jess Stenson is able to put the uncertainty in perspective, “my focus over the coming months will be to continue soaking up parenthood whilst doing my best to stay strong, fit, and healthy until another race opportunity comes along. If that opportunity doesn’t fall within the qualifying period it will be out of my control. I have learned and gained so much from the experience of training for a marathon postpartum regardless and have a lot to be grateful for during these challenging times for the global community.”
"I think athletes need to show focus and composure because we're role models. Younger athletes look up to us; we can't throw up our hands and say 'we give up' and stop training or only half-arse it."
Questions are abundant right now and answers are understandably hard to come by. The IOC recently issued a statement around missed qualification opportunities (there’s no clarity on whether or not that would include privately owned marathons such as Hamburg, London, or others), saying “We want to ensure you have fair access to qualification events and for qualification to take place on the field of play, including supporting IFs (International Federations) to create fair alternatives to lost qualification opportunities. We are therefore working closely with IFs to approve any necessary changes to the dates and locations of events and any necessary adaptations to the qualification systems.”
The original (and current) deadline for achieving qualifying times for Tokyo is June 30th, 2020. Common sense suggests this will now be extended, and The Guardian has reported that the IOC will relax qualifying standards, saying “The IOC has accepted it will need to relax qualification standards so athletes who are on the borderline can be selected even if they are unable to compete in the coming months because of the pandemic.” It is unclear however if this would mean someone like Milly Clark, who has achieved the qualifying standard for Tokyo (2:29:30 is the standard for the women’s marathon, Clark ran 2:28:08 at the 2019 Gold Coast Marathon), but is Australia’s 4th fastest qualifier, would have a chance to compete - logic would suggest no, otherwise every athlete who has ran the standard would have a case for competing, which would swell field sizes uncontrollably.
There’s also the matter of whether or not the Olympics are even held; some commentators pointing out the ‘lockdown’ measures in some countries mean an uneven playing field as many athletes are unable to train.
Melbourne Track Club Coach Nic Bideau might have summed it up best, "[people are thinking]...is it worth thinking about playing sport and running competitions when this is happening? Everyone is marking time for a month, training a bit, and hoping that events can be held in June in Europe and the US, but it is unlikely those events can be held."
This is a time of great uncertainty, and I understand running is not the main priority for many people currently, but whenever, wherever our athletes are cleared to compete again, TEMPO will be right there documenting the highs and lows, as we always have.