It has been a whirlwind few weeks for the 25-year-old Penny Smith. One of Australia’s top young trap shooters, she had just contested Shooting Australia’s final Olympic selection trials in March when news broke that Tokyo 2020 was postponed.
“It felt like a very long and arduous wait,” she says of the uncertainty that followed. “Would we have to go through selection and trials all over again? What would the outcome be?”
Recently, while horse-riding on her family farm in Bookaar, Victoria, Smith received a congratulatory phone call: in 15 months’ time she will make her Olympic debut.
Smith is one of 71 Australians who have been selected for the Tokyo Games, abaround 14% of the 480 or so athletes that the AOC expects to send to Japan. They come from a range of sports: track-cycling, sailing, canoe/kayak, artistic- and open-water swimming, modern pentathlon, archery and shooting. Some were confirmed months ago prior to the postponement, others – like Smith – were only announced recently.
The International Olympic Committee’s decision to delay the Games by 12 months due to coronavirus has left the AOC and its national sporting bodies with major selection dilemmas. Given some sports had already completed their processes, it would be a blow to those athletes for selection to now be deferred – potentially compounding the mental health challenges caused by the pandemic.
But there are no guarantees that squads picked in early 2020 will still represent the best selections come mid-2021. Form is temporary, young names emerge and veterans fade – there are good reasons why Olympic selection is typically concluded just months out from the Games.
“There is no perfect solution,” says Shooting Australia’s chief executive Luke van Kempen. “After our final selection event we inquired with the AOC about whether we could postpone the team nomination, and whether or not that might be a good thing to do, but it turned out that we were obliged to continue with the selection process.
“The squad we have announced is the squad that will go to Tokyo. That is the AOC policy: there is no room to de-select athletes, although of course an athlete can withdraw due to injury or changes in personal circumstances. The responsibility is on us to make sure we establish appropriate training and competition programmes – we have to do the best we can to ensure everyone is in peak performance when July 2021 comes around.”
Unsurprisingly, there is heightened sensitivity about selections right now. Athletes who just missed the cut wonder where they will be in 12 months’ time, while coaches consider how best to motivate selected and non-selected athletes. “There were some selections that were quite close, some tight competition for places,” says Van Kempen. “That drives good performance.” Such is the delicacy around the topic that one major sport refused to comment, instead directing queries to the AOC.
It told Guardian Australia that completed selection processes should be honoured. “Athletes have done everything that was asked of them and it is consistent with the International Olympic Committee’s position that those who are qualified remain qualified,” said a spokesperson. “It also means those athletes can now focus entirely on their preparation for Tokyo, which they are seeing as an advantage. In these uncertain times, certainty should be provided wherever possible in the best interest of sports and their athletes.”
Certainty has certainly been a big help for the Australian sailor Matt Wearn, who was among the first to be selected for the Games last year. “We felt the stress of a close selection would have a negative impact, and thought an early selection would help ensure a result come Tokyo,” says Wearn, who two months ago won silver in the Laser class world championships.
Having counted down the days to the Olympics since September, the postponement was at first a major blow. “We were ready to go,” says Wearn “I have been working towards this for quite a while so to have that taken away was hard to deal with. But now, to already be selected is a nice feeling – particularly in my class, where it is extremely tight for remaining spots among other countries.”
Wearn and his fellow sailors can now fully focus on their preparations for 2021. “The delay is a perfect opportunity to tick off a few more one-percenters that we might not have been able to work on prior to July,” the West Australian adds. “Now that we have more time we will keep thinking of things we can work on – in a way, that is a great upside.”
Ultimately Wearn, Smith and the other 69 are in the fortunate minority. For the remainder of Australia’s Olympic hopefuls, coronavirus has put their qualification plans on hold and left them facing an uncertain yea With travel halted and Australians isolating indoors, domestic and international selection opportunities are non-existent. It will likely be months or even a year before the AOC can announce any additions to the Olympic squad.
“The AOC is awaiting on further advice from the IOC on adjusted qualification systems,” the spokesperson added. Given the turbulent situation, the AOC – and the hundreds of Australians yet to qualify – may be waiting a while.