Australian Open Covid-19 situation shows Olympic difficulty

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Susan Egelstaff

IF an alien landed on earth and stumbled across the Australian Open saga that is going on, they could be forgiven for thinking there is some kind of hostage situation happening there rather than a tennis tournament.

As we approach the first Grand Slam of 2021, the past week has been farcical.

With Australians, and particularly Victorians, the state in which the tournament takes place, having been subjected to some of the harshest Covid restrictions in the world, tennis players were ordered to undergo a two-week quarantine period when they arrived to mitigate the risk of a virus outbreak.

Their initial quarantine conditions were hardly unmanageable; it was in fact “modified quarantine” and they were allowed out of their hotel rooms to practice and go to the gym each day, as well as an hour out of their room to eat.

However, after a number of individuals tested positive for Covid on arrival in Australia – despite negative tests on their departure – more than 70 players who were on flights with them were forced into a stricter quarantine and not allowed to leave their hotel rooms for 14 days.

Since then, some of the players have made it seem like they have been taken hostage.

France’s Alize Cornet called the strict protocols “insane”, while Argentina’s world No.13 Roberto Bautista Agut called his living conditions like being in jail but with wifi.

A few days in, world No.1 one Novak Djokovic wrote to tournament director Craig Tiley in an attempt to loosen the restrictions.

Djokovic’s suggestions included moving the players from their hotel to private houses with tennis courts, reducing the quarantine time and providing better food.

With the Australian public largely angered by the tournament being held at all after what they had endured in a bid to rid their country of the virus, the Australian media have treated the quarantined players like some kind of militia faction, calling Djokovic’s suggestions “a list of demands”.

Australia’s highest profile male player Nick Kyrgios then chipped in, calling Djokovic a “tool”, and the Victorian Premier, Dan Andrews, rejected the Serb’s proposals, saying: “The virus doesn’t treat you specially. So neither do we.”

Certainly, being confined to their hotel rooms is far from ideal. Being unable to do almost any physical activity, never mind actually access a tennis court on which to practice, is clearly not the preparation they would want ahead of one of the most important events of the year.

However, there has been a profound misunderstanding by many of the players about quite how fortunate they are to have an Australian Open taking place at all.

Melbournians have been subjected to one of the strictest lockdowns so it is understandable why so many are unwilling to give any leeway to a tennis tournament which will see them lose their recently reacquired freedom again should there be another outbreak.

Tennis is just one of countless sports desperate to get back to something resembling normality, but it is hard to sympathise when it seems there is a willingness to put sport above public safety.

The players still have almost a week of isolation left, in which time it may dawn on them that however tough it is, they remain in an incredibly privileged position to be competing at all.

For all the challenges the Australian Open is having to cope with and however big an event it may be in the tennis world, it is only a single sport event.

Which brings into focus the monumental problems facing the Tokyo Olympics.

Last week there were numerous conflicting reports about whether the Games would go ahead at all.

There was the London 2012 chief executive claiming it was “unlikely”, then the Tokyo 2020 organising committee disputing this; there was a source allegedly saying the Japanese government had accepted the Olympics would be cancelled, followed by Games officials flatly denying it.

Yesterday marked six months to go until the Opening Ceremony and while it is impossible to predict how the world will look by July, it is safe to assume the pandemic will not be over.

The cancellation of the Games would be devastating to athletes around the world who have spent years preparing for this. The financial impact would be huge too, with the postponement seeing the cost of the event rising to more than £11 billion.

The desperation, then, to ensure the Tokyo Olympics go ahead is reasonable.

But the Australian Open has proved just how difficult it is to stage a big sporting event, never mind one the size of the Olympics.

The uncertainty over the Olympics must be driving the athletes to distraction. But if the Australian Open has taught us anything, it is that it is almost impossible to hold a huge event during this pandemic without setbacks.

It remains to be seen if the Tokyo 2020 organisers decide the risks are worth taking.

Whatever their verdict though, for the sake of everyone involved, they must decide sooner rather than later.

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