Olympics: As uncertainty swirls, athletes face decision on whether to keep going

In September 2019, Jonathan Chan became the first Singaporean diver to earn a berth at the Olympics.
In September 2019, Jonathan Chan became the first Singaporean diver to earn a berth at the Olympics.PHOTO: ST FILE

SINGAPORE - The heartbreak of a cancelled Tokyo Olympics would be too much to bear for Jonathan Chan.

In September 2019, he became the first Singaporean diver to earn a berth at the Olympics. What was supposed to be a 10-month wait to compete at the pinnacle of sport has turned into 19, after the Games were postponed by a year owing to the Covid-19 pandemic.

But what will happen to Chan if the July 23 to Aug 8 Games are axed?

"I'll probably take a break from diving," said Chan with a wry smile. "A long break."

Reaching the Olympics, as the 23-year-old has readily admitted in interviews, was never in his long-term plans. Qualifying after winning gold at the Asian Diving Cup was an unexpected bonus.

"But when I look back, to reach this point and for (the Olympics) to be cancelled, I would feel like all the struggles over the years are wasted," said Chan, who began training in his sport at 13.

Throwing in the towel

While a dark cloud looms over the Tokyo Games, athletes chasing their dreams are faced with a soul-crushing decision: Do I give up?

Some already have.

After the announcement of the year-long postponement, Chinese badminton great and two-time Olympic champion Lin Dan threw in the towel.

Australian basketball player Andrew Bogut, owner of an National Basketball Association championship ring, had hoped to finish his career in Tokyo but then announced his retirement in December 2020, saying he felt he could not "physically and mentally get to 2021".

Too hard to give up

For others, however, the allure of the Olympics is still too great.

Twins Mark and Timothy Lee are both gunning for places in the men's 3m springboard in Tokyo. The pair, who turn 27 in August, will compete at the Fina Diving World Cup in Tokyo this week - the last qualifying competition - and reckon placing in the top 30 would earn them their tickets.

"All our planning, be it for school or life, has been geared toward qualifying for the Olympics," said Mark, adding that they had extended their academic studies by two years to allow for more time to train, rest and compete.

Timothy added: "At the end of the day, whatever happens with the Olympics and at this (World Cup)... when we retire and I look back, I want to know I did everything I could to the best of my ability."

Time running out for some?

Timothy and Mark will graduate from their respective universities this year and do not see Paris 2024 as a feasible target, partly as how they would be pushing 30 by then.

Time is also a factor for sailor Cecilia Low, who with her 49erFX partner Kimberly Lim, earned Singapore a berth for the Olympics in Dec 2019.

Low, 30, noted that their event is "physically demanding" - the boat's hull weighs almost 100kg - and although she and Lim, 24, are not considered over the hill yet, they are aware that younger competitors are trying to catch up.

When asked if Paris 2024 would still be a reasonable target in the event of a cancellation, Low said the pair would have to "reassess where they are". Like the Lee twins, they have already made sacrifices in their academic pursuits to chase their Olympic dream.

Low has already gained acceptance to the Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University Asia but has put off starting her degree, while Lim took a leave of absence from her accountancy degree course at Singapore Management University.

An alien experience awaits

Even if it is all systems go for the Tokyo Games, the athlete experience will be like no other. About 11,000 athletes are expected to compete in the Olympics - another 4,400 athletes will take part in the Paralympics - and current International Olympic Council (IOC) playbook rules have divided opinion.

In January, Minister for Culture, Community and Youth Edwin Tong said that Team Singapore athletes who have to travel abroad to train, prepare or qualify for the Tokyo Olympics "will be accorded some degree of prioritisation" for Covid-19 vaccination.

Six of the seven Singaporean divers heading to the World Cup are vaccinated - the only one who is not, 14-year-old Max Lee, is too young.

Some of the Republic's overseas-based athletes, like swimmer Quah Zheng Wen, have also received their jabs.

The Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) are monitoring the developments around the Olympics very closely and its spokesman said it is in regular contact with the relevant authorities and agencies.

"We have protocols and contingencies to address possible scenarios at the major Games including the Tokyo Games," he said. "The playbook issued by the IOC also serves as an essential guide for the contingent's movements, health and safety at the Games

"Those who have resumed travelling to competitions are taking the new travel and health guidelines in good stride. We are putting in our best efforts to help them to fulfil their Olympic aspirations while prioritising their health and safety and ensuring their welfare is well looked after."