The epidemic affects the mental health of athletes at the Tokyo Games

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Written by Gabrielle Tétrault-Farber e Elaine Lies

TOKYO (Reuters) – Isolation and the absence of family and friends have taken a toll on the mental health of athletes at the Tokyo Olympics, and some are grappling with the challenges of the pandemic while carrying their countries’ hopes on the big global sporting scene.

After leaving the artistic gymnastics collegiate competition on Tuesday, Simone Biles said she carries the weight of the world on her shoulders. This burden appears to have been exacerbated by a year of grief, loss and limitations associated with the Covid-19 pandemic.

“You usually spend some time in the (Olympic) village, all of that,” Biles said. “It’s annoying when you feel the weight of the world. There’s no escape, with the amount of training we do.”

Athletes faced their pre-Olympic training due to the lockdown and restricted access to sports facilities, and the postponement of the Games raised concerns about the qualifying calendar and the ability to travel internationally without contracting the virus.

Family and friends can’t cheer for them in the Tokyo stands and their movements are very restricted.

The pandemic has prompted the US gymnastics team to avoid the bustle of the Olympic Village and stay in a nearby hotel for security reasons, which robs some of the luster from the Olympic experience.

“I’m not saying we don’t have a good setup,” Biles said. “We chose this to check for Covid, protocols and all.”

‘hard path’

Even before they arrived in Tokyo, the athletes faced new and unfamiliar stresses associated with the pandemic. They needed to find ways to train during the lockdown and qualify for the biggest sporting event without compromising their health or the health of their families and communities.

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“When we found out that the Games had been postponed due to the pandemic, our training base was closed. We were in quarantine for a year and a half and training all the time,” gymnast Angelina Melnikova, of the Russian Olympic Committee, said. The United States wins the gold medal in the women’s team championship.

Other athletes contracted Covid-19 on their trip to Tokyo, at the Games themselves or in the early stages of the pandemic, threatening to derail years of Olympic hard work.

British swimmer Tom Dean contracted Covid-19 twice in preparation for Tokyo, forcing him to spend days in isolation and halting his training. The 21-year-old even won gold in the 200m freestyle on Tuesday to help the United Kingdom get off to its best start at the Olympics.

Other athletes who have contracted Covid-19 have not been so lucky.

South Korean fencer Oh Sangi, who was hospitalized for a month due to the virus, fell in the quarter-finals to Georgian Sandro Pazadze, losing 15 x 13.

Like many people around the world, Olympic athletes have also lost loved ones to the virus. Bills’ teammate Sunisa Lee, who won three medals at the 2019 World Championships, has lost her aunt and uncle to the pandemic while preparing for Tokyo.

(Additional reporting by Sakura Murakami, Aaron Sheldrake, Amy Tenry, Omar Muhammad and Alan Baldwin)

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