Worry and uncertainty as athletes run into Covid-19, SEA Games qualifying hurdles

SINGAPORE – After undergoing spinal surgery in December last year, pole vaulter Rachel Yang was eager to get her season started at the Singapore Athletics (SA) All Comers Meet 4 on May 29-30.

The competition was meant to be a build-up towards qualifying for the Vietnam SEA Games in November, when the 39-year-old had hoped to add to her collection of a SEA Games silver and bronze.

But her plan has now been thrown into disarray. Two hurdles stand in the way of national athletes like Yang aiming for the Games as they have to navigate the tightened Covid-19 safety measures while trying to make the mark by June 13 after the Singapore National Olympic Council (SNOC) shortened the qualifying window by two months.

With Singapore in phase two (heightened alert) from May 16 to June 13, the Allcomers meet has been tentatively postponed to July 10-11 while the status of the June 4-11 SA Performance Trial 2 and a marathon trial slated for June 13 – the final meets before the qualifying window closes – remains up in the air.

SA is currently in talks with national agency Sport Singapore (Sport SG) on whether the meets will be allowed to continue.

The developments have been a double blow for Yang as she noted that even if the Performance Trial 2 is allowed to proceed, it will be a “make it or break it” event for her if she wants to book her ticket to Hanoi within the qualifying window.

She told The Straits Times: “I was shocked to know about SNOC bringing forward the qualifying deadline and SA postponing some competitions, especially since I have yet to start my season… It is definitely very pressurising.”

The pole vaulter noted that she usually needs “around three to four competitions to peak” as the discipline comprises “many variables” which need to be adjusted over a few meets.

The SNOC’s selection committee meeting for the SEA Games was initially scheduled for August after the Tokyo Olympics, but with the recent extension of the stay-home notice (SHN) duration from 14 to 21 days, this meeting was brought forward to early July and NSAs were asked to submit their nominations by June 13.

However, NSAs and athletes will have till August to submit results for the appeals meeting in September. The SNOC had also previously said that the qualification benchmark would be moved backwards to the results of the 2019 SEA Games, and consideration will also be given to the NSA’s performance indicators (projected vs actual) of the past three SEA Games.

When contacted, SA president Lien Choong Luen noted that June 13 is a “soft deadline” that gives SNOC a “preliminary sense of what the list of potential athletes who have qualified for the Games look like”.

He added: “With the current Covid-19 situation, we are looking at what we can organise and what we cannot organise. Since athletes are not able to travel overseas for competitions, we have already made the necessary provisions beforehand, such as holding at least one competition a month.”

Lien added that athletes who perform well after June 13 can still submit the results for consideration prior to the final deadline and that “this should not affect the number of athletes or medals at the SEA Games”.

The association is also planning competitions for athletes to qualify before the appeals meeting.

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Uncertainty for athletes, associations

Athletics is not the only sport affected by the developments, with golf and wushu – which won a gold and silver each at the 2019 SEA Games – also trying to balance safety measures in the new phase two with supporting their athletes’ quest to qualify for the year-end Games.

The Singapore Wushu Dragon & Lion Dance Federation has suspended centralised training since Saturday and the NSA is in discussion with SportSG and the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth (MCCY) on the next course of action.

The federation’s president Ang Mong Seng said: “(The situation now) is definitely a concern… We still have a few more months to go, so we hope that we will be able to resume normal training in mid June when  phase two (heightened alert) ends.”

Ang added that it had planned for a selection competition by June and would work with the authorities to see if that can proceed. It has submitted a tentative list of 20 athletes to the SNOC and aims to finalise the numbers by July.

The Singapore Golf Association (SGA) had planned to select athletes for the biennial multi-sport event via their national ranking games (NRG). The first was slated for June 15-17 followed by the second tournament a week later before the final qualifier, the Singapore Open Amateur Championship in July. The three tournaments will contribute to the golfers’ SGA NRG order of merit and their R&A World Amateur Golf ranking, which will determine qualification for the SEA Games.

SGA high performance manager Joshua Ho said: “I think we are quite fortunate in the sense that we are able to train individually unlike team sports and contact sports which will struggle with the new measures.”

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That certainly is the case for discus thrower Eric Yee, who is more worried about the heightened measures than the shortened qualifying window.

The 22-year-old, who is gunning for a spot at the Hanoi Games, said the closure of gyms had affected his training regime.

He explained: “As a thrower, I have to lift (weights). I now have to do home gym training with lighter weights, which is very different from what I would otherwise be doing. If regulations regarding gyms and social distancing extend or change, both training and competition may be completely cancelled.”

But he will trudge on, adding: “We live in a new pandemic world so you just have to be flexible… assuming I still get opportunities to qualify, I think I will do fine.”

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