by Karen Crouse
Gregorio Paltrinieri of Italy stood on the starting blocks, took his mark and knifed into the pool. Three times he hit the water, racing the 400-meter, 800-meter and 1,500-meter freestyles. But the scene at his 25-meter training facility last week in Ostia, a coastal suburb of Rome, proved a poor substitute for what he would have experienced if the Italian Olympic trials had been held, as planned, in a 50-meter facility in Riccione.
“There was nobody else in the pool,” Paltrinieri said. “No crowd. No timekeepers. It was just me and the water.”
He added: “The races went really bad. My preparation was not complete.”
Olympic athletes follow a four-year cycle, which the coronavirus pandemic has, in many cases, severely disrupted. Forget whether it is shrewd, safe or sane to hold the Tokyo Olympics, as scheduled, from July 24 to Aug. 9. Paltrinieri, the reigning Olympic champion in the 1,500 freestyle, posed another question: Is it fair to the athletes?
In Italy, Paltrinieri said, he is one of the few Italian national team members with access to a training pool. It is the same in the United States, where prospective Olympians in Arizona continue training, albeit with restrictions. Stricter rules have closed pools used by clubs in California, leaving Olympians there high and dry.
It’s a climate that rewards resourcefulness — makeshift backyard conditioning setups and ocean training in wet suits — in lieu of the usual rigors of regimen.
“I’m lucky right now,” Paltrinieri said. “I’m still swimming.”
But he has spoken to competitors from Spain, France, Germany and Ukraine who are not. “I don’t think it’s fair to compete in an Olympics where 90% of the guys are losing two, three weeks — and probably way more — to training,” he said.
For anyone losing a considerable amount of time to training, “you can’t even imagine competing in August at the Olympics,” Paltrinieri added.
On Sunday, swimmer Michael Gross of Germany, a six-time Olympic medalist in the 1980s, added his voice to the growing chorus when he appealed to the International Olympic Committee president, Thomas Bach, to postpone the Summer Olympics. “Now, 2020, would be unfair,” he wrote in an open letter to Bach, who is also from Germany.
In an emergency meeting of the executive board, the IOC on Sunday essentially established a four-week window to determine, in concert with Japan’s Olympic officials, whether to postpone the games or hold a scaled-down version.
This latest IOC statement failed to address the upheaval and distress that the athletes are facing now and presumably will contend with for another month. “It’s almost what they kept saying all this time,” Paltrinieri said Sunday. “So for now I just keep training as it’d be in August. Then we’ll see.”
It could be argued that the playing field is never truly level, as some countries enjoy access to better resources, like state-of-the-art pools and cutting-edge coaching and science. It can be argued that the playing field is never truly level as long as some countries find new and inventive ways to flout anti-doping policies, a cat-and-mouse game that particularly favors cheaters as testing, because of border closures and travel restrictions, is uneven at best.
But the coronavirus outbreak has also created injustices within countries, producing a situation, Paltrinieri said, where “nobody is ready or in the mindset of competing.”
“Physically, it’s bad,” he added. “Mentally, it’s even worse.”
In the United States, Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel, with 10 Olympic medals between them, scrambled to find training waters after the Stanford facilities were shut down. Allison Schmitt, an eight-time Olympic medalist, was able to continue to use Arizona State’s pools for two hours a day.
So upside down are the circumstances that Paltrinieri, who also competes in open-water events, cannot train in the sea because Italy’s beaches, he said, have been closed. Meanwhile, U.S. swimmer Michael Andrew is training in the Pacific Ocean because his San Diego-area pool was shut down.
So topsy-turvy are these times that the father, and coach, of three-time British Olympian Hannah Miley of Scotland asked her to appeal to her swimsuit sponsor, Arena, for wet suits so she and her Aberdeen teammates would be able to continue to train in the River Don or the River Dee.
Miley was one of a handful of British Olympians who competed last weekend at the Edinburgh International at the Royal Commonwealth Pool even as soccer matches and other sporting events across Britain were canceled or postponed (as were the British Olympic trials, scheduled for April in London, shortly after the meet’s conclusion). During the Saturday finals session, a body pump class featuring rubber barbell weight sets took place in one of the upstairs studios, behind a set of bleachers where two teenage swimmers debated whether the swim meet constituted a gathering of 500 people, which was the cutoff proposed by Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s leader, for the cancellation of an event.
From Italy, Paltrinieri followed the Edinburgh results with confusion. How was it that his British competitors were free to gather and race when the virus that had effectively shut down Italy had spread across Britain? “I don’t really understand what’s happening in other countries like France and Great Britain,” Paltrinieri said. “They keep doing their things knowing that we had the same problem and our situation is getting worse every day.”
For Paltrinieri, who last raced in mid-December, the situation struck him as another ripple in a sea of inequities. “I’ll not have raced for seven, eight months when I go to the Olympics, so I don’t know,” he said. “I think it’s crazy to just think about competing in the Olympics right now.”
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