With the Tokyo Summer Olympics barely in the rearview mirror, here’s the Beijing Winter Games
“We knew the pandemic wasn’t going to be entirely over, but things were going well early in the summer,” said Tiger Shaw, president and CEO of US Ski & Snowboard. “Now it’s going to be somewhere between normal and last year.”
For almost every winter sport, last season has been a messy jumble of canceled or moved events. The Grand Prix skating series was held only at the national level and the Beijing final was canceled. The Long Track Speed Skating World Cup was condensed into consecutive weekends in January at an arena in the Netherlands and the short track version was dropped. For the first time in nearly half a century, no Alpine Skiing World Cup event has been held in North America.
Yet most sports ended up with a reasonable facsimile of a calendar and all of them staged world championships, unlike most of their summer counterparts in 2020. “We’ve been lucky this season. last because most of our world tours have been done, ”Shaw observed. “We had protocols that seemed to work pretty well, not without infection, but we got away with it. This year we expect very similar things in terms of masking, testing and separation. “
One major difference this year is that virtually all of America’s Olympic hopefuls have been vaccinated. But with the increase in cases of rupture in the United States and elsewhere, the teams are doubly cautious.
“This year, for vaccinated athletes, we were able to lift a lot of restrictions,” said Shane Domer, director of high performance for US speed skating. “Now we’re back to being super safe, trying to eliminate any kind of spread.”
The precautions will be useful exercises for the Games where the Chinese government’s “zero-COVID” policy will likely be much more restrictive on athletes than was that of Tokyo, where “come-compete-leave” was the mantra.
Concerns about the coronavirus have already reorganized some schedules. The China Cup skating event scheduled for early November has been moved to Turin and it is almost certain that the Luge World Cup stops in Whistler, B.C., and Lake Placid, New York, will also be moved due to entry policies for foreigners.
“One of our biggest challenges in preparing for the season is staying on top of all the protocols necessary to bring our team to other countries,” said Mark Grimmette, USA Luge athletic programs director. “Last year was a lot of testing. This year it is proof of vaccination and countries have different ways of proving it. We have training in Norway coming up and it is not known if we will be able to enter there. “
While the American skiers had a productive offseason schedule in Oregon, they were unable to travel to South America and New Zealand for their regular training on the trails there. So they went early to the glaciers in Europe, where the World Cup season kicks off in late October before moving to the United States for races in Beaver Creek, Colorado, and Killington, Vermont.
Traveling to China, which has a three-week quarantine for visitors who will likely be waived for pre-Olympic competitions, presents logistical challenges. For the opening of the Luge World Cup on the Yanqing track in November, the International Federation is considering using a charter flight to transport all the sliders to what will be the official test event of the Games.
The test events scheduled in Beijing, where international athletes were supposed to have invaluable rehearsal at Olympic venues, were held with Chinese athletes or were postponed until this fall. But with most sports starting their seasons in Europe, competitors are unlikely to make the other half of the globe for a preview.
For Americans, getting into a normal pre-Olympic schedule and being on the American team are top priorities. Last year, the sliders skipped the first half of the World Cup season.
“We didn’t like the [COVID] numbers that we have seen in Europe, ”said Grimmette. But the bobsleigh, skeleton and luge teams moved on to the second half and finished their campaigns.
“It was good for everyone’s mindset to be able to go further and compete,” said Grimmette. “Because the first half was difficult.”
Hosting world championships was essential in sports such as figure skating and curling, where placements determine the number of Olympic entries countries receive. Both U.S. curling teams advanced to Beijing with the women, who finished eighth at PyeongChang in 2018, winning a surprise bronze medal.
The delayed world hockey tournament has proven to be a boon for the Americans, the reigning Olympic champions chasing their sixth consecutive world crown. This gave them a chance to put their core in a world competition much closer to the Games. American men will not have this advantage.
Last time around, USA Hockey knew in the previous April that NHL players weren’t competing in Korea and had plenty of time to assemble a group of minor leagues, European clubbers and college kids who were on the verge of qualifying for the tournament. round of medals. This time, the federation will have to wait at least the end of the month to find out.
At a time when the pandemic and its deadly variant Delta continue to spread, adaptability has been paramount.
“We’re always talking about trying to build resilient athletes, but last year we hit another level,” Domer said. “They had to be ready for anything. They had to be prepared to potentially enter quarantine in their training and continue as if nothing had happened. If we were to have hiccups in competitions or protocols in Beijing it would help tremendously that we were able to get through this last year. They are ready to face whatever is thrown at them.