Australia plans on sending one of its largest ever away team of athletes to the Toyko Games this year, but there is just one problem — there are no competitions available for them to qualify.
The journey to the delayed Olympic and Paralympic games has been full of hurdles for our sporting men and women, many of whom still face that one last barrier to getting on the plane.
With numerous World Championships cancelled across the globe during rolling lockdowns, athletes are struggling to find competitions where they can secure a spot on their respective national teams.
Olympic clay target shooter Penny Smith is one of the lucky ones to have already qualified for Tokyo, and if she wants to train she does not have to go very far.
The distance from her backdoor to the shooting range on her family farm in western Victorian can be counted in steps, rather than metres.
The homebuilt range has been a godsend for the 25-year-old during lockdown and is just one example of the way the nation’s top athletes have been forced to adapt amidst the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
“It certainly would be very stressful, and a lot of pressure, not knowing where their matches would be or how they’ll qualify. But I’m very thankful that Shooting Australia got our matches done and qualification was upheld.”
As it stands, just 78 Australians have been selected for a national side that is tipped to be among the largest away squad in Australian history.
The Australian Olympic Committee has confirmed it is hoping to send 480 athletes to Tokyo, meaning with just five months until the opening ceremony Australia’s named about 16 per cent of the athletes heading to Japan.
Smith’s qualification for the Games is something she has not taken for granted.
She missed the chance to don the green and gold at the 2018 Commonwealth Games but bounced back with a win at the 2019 ISSF World Cup in Finland.
Smith took out the national and Commonwealth titles last year before the pandemic wreaked havoc on the international shooting calendar.
Ever since, her backyard has been her lone shooting range and she is determined to stay focused.
One of the athletes crossing her fingers for an Olympic berth is table tennis star Milly Tapper.
Tapper rewrote the record books at Rio in 2016, becoming the first Australian athlete to compete at both the Paralympic and Olympic games.
However that was not enough to guarantee her Olympic return.
“I’m aiming to qualify in the team event and then the mixed doubles event,” Tapper said.
The anxiety that comes with the unknown is something she said she was learning to work through.
“I mean, 2020 ended up a bit like a big dumpster truck, it definitely got turned upside down,” Tapper said.
“But with my team around me I took the best approach to make the most of the year, which has turned out in my favour.
“I feel like if I was to have competed in Tokyo when it was to be held I wasn’t going to be as ready as what I wanted to be.
“Now, with everything that we’ve done, I’m really excited and hopefully looking towards Tokyo this year.”
The International Olympic Committee’s grappling with how to make qualifying fair for locked-down nations.
Athletes competing at the Olympics will be required to wear a mask unless they are eating, sleeping, or outdoors, and will need to be tested 72 hours before departing their home country, again on arrival, and every four days afterwards.
Organisers are encouraging people to clap, but not chant or sing when supporting competitors.
The Victorian Institute of Sport’s performance manager Bill Tait thinks the pandemic could work in the team’s favour.
“I would say we should be optimistic in Australia,” Mr Tait said.
“If we have a really good run, as we are at the moment in terms of relative safety from COVID, and the ability to train, we should be at an advantage compared to some of the northern hemisphere competitors.”
Of the 78 Australian athletes selected to date, 32 will be making their Olympic debut.
And the relative quiet of the stadiums could work in their favour, according to Mr Tait.
“One of the challenges of first-time Olympians is they get overawed by the sense of the moment because of the [unfamiliar] crowd,” he said.
The Tokyo Olympic Games are scheduled to commence in July, while the Paralympics are expected to start at the end of August.
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