Ahead of the rescheduled Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, Phil Andrews, CEO, USA Weightlifting, gives us a look at the extreme circumstances athletes have had to overcome and the challenges International Federations face in ensuring their athletes are mentally and physically prepared to compete.
COVID-19 has changed global sport completely. Events have been cancelled, fans have been unable to watch their favourite sports and more than a year later, it is still uncertain whether a return to a form of normality will be anytime soon.
The pandemic has forced us all to become more creative in taking part in sports activity. Athletes from across the world have had to overcome lockdown restrictions, quarantine rules, and strict social distancing in order to train.
Some of our athletes have been forced to train in their garages or in rented storage facilities as a result of the restrictions. Virtual sessions via Zoom have replaced long training camps, purely to help ensure athletes still feel a sense of belonging within the team and keep their participation levels up.
The already-difficult circumstances were made even tougher by the parallel economic impact of the pandemic. But boosted by the continued support of existing sponsors, at USA Weightlifting we were able to use our wider network to find creative ways to generate much-needed revenue with new sponsors that led to increased income and support for our athletes.
With the Tokyo Olympic Games fast approaching, it is our responsibility to support our athletes as much as possible as they prepare. We want to do everything we can to give them the best experience possible while representing their country.
I took a firm stance that athletes who qualified before the postponement of the Games last year would keep their places for 2021. While qualification got extended, I was delighted that the same eight who qualified in 2020 eventually did so again in 2021, with a respectful nod to the athletes who quite rightly tried to qualify this year given the extension. This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for many of them and it is crucial that we do our best to support them.
In May, we unveiled the Hawaii Strong Camp for USA Weightlifting athletes to prepare for the Games from early July, giving the team the chance to train in a secure environment with world-class support staff, as well as friends and family members. Everyone attending the camp will follow strict bubble protocols and there will be regular testing of all individuals participating, including before they leave for Tokyo. The camp will run all the way through to 4th August, the date when Weightlifting events end at the Games, so no one will be preparing alone in isolation.
The Hawaii Strong Camp will follow the USOPC’s High Performance Training Center concept and we are delighted to see that this model has been taken on by other North American sports federations as well.
We’re also thinking about the longer term, particularly as the delay of the Games has damaged preparations for the next Olympic cycle. Paris 2024 hopefuls will also have the chance to sample the Olympic experience in Hawaii, something which would have been virtually impossible under our original Tokyo plans.
One of the main benefits that the Hawaii hub will allow is continued support for mental preparations that athletes will be undertaking. The pressure that athletes must feel in the run up to any Games - let alone during COVID-19 - is unquestionable. It is our duty to make sure our team is in the right frame of mind.
Of course, athletes must be in the optimum physical shape and our dedicated nutrition specialists, sports scientists and sports psychologists are doing everything to ensure they are in perfect condition for the Games. Our team will also train on Tokyo time to acclimatise themselves while in Hawaii, with sleep experts on hand to give out the best possible preparation techniques.
But for many athletes, having close support networks around can help them into the best possible mindset for achieving success. The Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee have set strict protocols that teams must follow during the Games, including limiting the number of staff and athlete entourage that can attend events.
The Olympic Games are built on the memorable moments that athletes have with family members after their events. We’ve seen the damage that spending large amounts of time away from loved ones can have on mental health exacerbated by the pandemic.
By allowing athletes to have access to support from their personal coach, families, and friends in Hawaii, we are giving them the best opportunity to mentally prepare and recover. USA Weightlifting is also offering free mental health counselling to all our members.
With easy access from Honolulu Airport directly into Tokyo, athletes will continue to be around support hubs until shortly before they compete. The direct link means no athlete will spend a long amount of time in Japan and will ensure all Covid-19 protocols are fully adhered to.
Ultimately, the mental wellness of an athlete, as opposed to sports psychology, is an exceptionally important part of athletic preparation. Athletes today have faced the most extreme barriers and circumstances that challenge their ability to compete but show time and time again their willingness to overcome them.
At USA Weightlifting, our team is supported in the best way possible and we give our athletes the best conditions to compete at their very best for what will certainly be a very different Olympic Games.