By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) – The coronavirus pandemic prompted Australia to withdraw its athletes from the 2020 Olympics on Monday while the nation’s top rugby league competition was called off and other domestic sports scrambled to stave off financial ruin.
With its athletes unable to train or prepare properly due to ‘social distancing’ and a clampdown on travel, the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) said it could no longer assemble a team for the July 24-Aug. 9 Games in Tokyo.
“It’s clear the Games can’t be held in July,” Australia Chef de Mission Ian Chesterman said on Monday, three days after telling reporters the team was committed to the schedule.
“Our athletes have been magnificent in their positive attitude to training and preparing, but the stress and uncertainty has been extremely challenging for them.”
Australia had previously been in lock-step with the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which until Sunday had insisted the Games would go ahead as scheduled.
After weeks of pressure, the IOC finally said postponement was in its “scenario planning”, with a decision expected in four weeks.
The timeframe was not quick enough for the AOC, however, which announced its decision shortly after Canada became the first country to boycott the Games.
AOC Chief Executive Matt Carroll said he hoped the Games would go ahead in Tokyo, but not until the summer of 2021.
“We’ve had to make a call now because of the situation here in Australia and other parts of the world,” Carroll told reporters in Sydney on Monday.
Australia’s Paralympic committee and sports federations backed the AOC’s stance. Swimming Australia (SA) said it was “devastating” for athletes but the correct decision.
“Given the current situation worldwide, it has become evident that it is not safe for the Games to be staged in its current time frame,” SA Chief Executive Leigh Russell said.
Australians began living under strict new lockdown rules on Monday as coronavirus cases topped 1,600.
More than 14,600 people have died globally since the coronavirus outbreak began.
Australia’s National Rugby League suspended its season indefinitely after only two rounds of the championship.
“Our pandemic expert and our biosecurity expert said due to the rapid rate of infection that we can no longer guarantee the safety of our players to continue to play,” Australian Rugby League Commission chairman Peter V’landys told a media conference on Monday at its Sydney headquarters.
Earlier on Monday, a domestic rugby union competition which was to have served as a temporary replacement for Super Rugby was shelved.
Originally slated for an April 3 start, the competition was suspended until at least May 1, Rugby Australia said, placing the game under further financial strain.
RA’s announcement came after the Australian Football League, the nation’s richest and most popular sporting competition, was suspended before the first round of matches was completed on Sunday.
The top flight Australian Rules football league will be shut down until at least June, triggering warnings of mass redundancies at clubs and at league headquarters.
Australia’s A-League, the top flight soccer competition, is expected to be called off on Tuesday, with administrators calling a media conference for a “significant announcement”.
In neighboring New Zealand, the country’s rugby federation confirmed it had also torn up a plan for a domestic replacement for Super Rugby and said it had suspended the sport at all levels.
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)