Deferred dreams: What COVID taught three Olympic athletes

The Tokyo Olympics was arguably the biggest sporting casualty of the coronavirus pandemic, postponed in March in an unprecedented move as a third of the world was plunged into COVID-19-related lockdowns.

More than 11,000 elite athletes from 33 different sports were due to compete in the games – for most the pinnacle of sporting achievement.A pared-down Olympics is now scheduled to be held for two weeks from July 23, 2021, with some adjustments for the pandemic. The Paralympics will follow.A pared-down Olympics is now scheduled to be held for two weeks from July 23, 2021, with some adjustments for the pandemic. The Paralympics will follow.Everyone wants to know how she became the javelin women’s world champion.

“It’s the question I get asked the most,” said Kelsey-Lee Barber, laughing, after Al Jazeera put forward the same question.

“Javelin is quite an unusual event,” she admitted. “Especially in a country like Australia where team sports are the focus.”

Born in South Africa, Barber moved to Australia as a child. In high school, she threw the discus but her coach encouraged her to dabble in other field events such as shot put and javelin.

It was when Barber won the javelin event in the 2008 Pacific School Games that she realised it was the sport for her.

“This is the event that’s going to take me to the Olympics,” she recalled thinking. “This is what I want to do with my life.”

Her gut was right – 29-year-old Barber is now not only the world champion, winning gold in Doha in 2019 but also has the 12th-longest javelin throw on record. She threw an incredible 67.70m (222 feet) in Lucerne last year.

Barber is preparing for her second Olympics and has fortunately not been as affected by the COVID-19 lockdowns as other sportspeople have – after all, athletics is predominantly an individual event.

“We had to move off-site at the beginning and we were training in our garages and local parks,” Barber said. “When COVID was announced as a pandemic, we thought [the Olympic Committee] would do everything in their power to make it happen.”By late March, several countries – including Australia and Canada – had officially withdrawn their teams from the Tokyo games, citing concerns for their health.

“When things started to escalate as rapidly as they did, I think that’s when I started realising that maybe Tokyo wouldn’t go ahead this year,” says Barber.

While disappointed that she did not get to compete this year, Barber says she thinks it was the right thing to do.

“It’s given me a different opportunity this year,” she mused. “I’ve really been able to focus on looking after my body this year, and that’s a huge plus going forward.”

“I’ve potentially put a few extra years onto my career because of the work I’ve been able to do this year.”

“This year has also given me an opportunity to just be me,” Barber added, smiling. “I’ve still put in a lot of training but for the first time in a very long time, athletics hasn’t had to be the number one priority.”

Malaysian gymnast Farah Ann Abdul Hadi was supposed to spend July competing beneath the lofty roof of the 12,000 seat Ariake Gymnastics Centre in Tokyo, the first Malaysian woman ever to qualify for the competition.

Instead, the 26-year-old was working on her routines in Malaysia’s National Sports Complex in the southern suburbs of Kuala Lumpur, putting in the hours in the gym and with physiotherapy and sharing regular updates with her 340,000 Instagram followers.

Looking back, Farah says that while she was “a little bit upset” as talk swirled that the Olympics would be cancelled, the delay was perhaps a blessing in disguise, allowing her body time to fully recover after back-to-back competitions in 2019 and multiple injuries throughout her international career.

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