Covid positive tests, athletes in isolation and a major drugs row – how Olympic athletics in Tokyo descended into chaos

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Covid, Australian team in isolation and a major drugs row – how Tokyo Olympic athletics competition descended into chaos
Covid, Australian team in isolation and a major drugs row – how Tokyo Olympic athletics competition descended into chaos

The Olympic athletics competition descended into chaos on the eve of its first day when the world pole vault champion was ruled out with Covid, the majority of the Australian team were temporarily forced into isolation, and a major drugs row saw 20 athletes – including almost half the Nigerian team – told they had not conducted enough tests to compete.

America’s Sam Kendricks, who has won the last two world pole vault titles and claimed Olympic bronze in 2016, tested positive for Covid on Thursday morning. He was reported to be asymptomatic, but will no longer be able to compete in Tokyo.

Later on Thursday, fellow pole vaulter German Chiaraviglio, of Argentina, confirmed he had also been ruled out with Covid.

Following Kendricks’s positive case, 44 of the 62-person Australian athletics squad were told to return to their rooms immediately while three members of the team who had been in close contact with the American pole vaulter underwent PCR testing.

Only once all three had tested negative were the remaining athletes allowed to leave their rooms after little more than two hours.

Those three team members, who have not been named, are now in isolation and will be tested daily. They will only be able to train apart from the rest of the Australian athletics team and are expected to compete as planned.

“We want every Australian athlete to be in a position to have their Olympic moment,” said Australia’s chef de mission Ian Chesterman. “We will continue to be vigilant.”

Earlier on Thursday, 10 of Nigeria’s 23 track and field athletes were struck off the startlists, leaving some of them pleading for help to resolve the situation.

A total of 20 athletes were ruled ineligible to compete in Tokyo, all of them coming from the seven countries deemed most at risk of doping and therefore subject to stricter controls than other nations. Most are already in the Olympic Village in Tokyo.

According to Athletics Integrity Unit (AIU) rules, athletes from those seven ‘Category A’ countries must undergo at least three no-notice, out-of-competition tests in the 10 months leading to a major event. Only then are they eligible to compete at the Olympics.

As well as Nigeria’s 10 athletes, three were struck off from Ukraine and Belarus, one from Morocco and one from Ethiopia. Two Kenyan athletes were also deemed not to be eligible, but Athletics Kenya had already replaced them before submitting its final entries earlier this month.

All 13 athletes from Bahrain, which is also a ‘Category A’ country, were cleared to compete.

Given their regular appearances on the international circuit, none of Nigeria’s most prominent athletes have been affected by the news, with sprinters Blessing Okagbare and Divine Oduduru, and world long jump bronze medalist Ese Brume all still eligible.

However, the mass withdrawals leave Nigeria in serious jeopardy of being unable to field relay teams, with just two athletes now listed for the women’s 4x100m and mixed 4x400m.

Discus thrower Chioma Onyekwere, who had posted multiple photos from within the Olympic Village in recent days, said: “It has come to our attention that 10 athletes are not eligible to compete in athletics for Nigeria, including myself. The athletes are not at fault for this.

“Please we need your help on how we can waive this so all 10 of us can compete.

“I will continue to remain hopeful and keep training. I don’t think athletes should be penalised for action that we can not control.”

Okagbare was scathing of the Athletics Federation of Nigeria for failing to ensure all its athletes fulfilled the requirements.

“I have said it before and I will say it again. If you do not know the sport, not passionate about it/us [the athletes], then you have no business there as an administrator,” she wrote on social media.

“The sport system in Nigeria is so flawed and we athletes are always at the receiving end of the damages.

“They were busy fighting over power, exercising their pride over puma contract / kits, forgetting their major responsibility ‘THE ATHLETES’. It’s sad that this cycle keeps repeating itself.”

The AIU was founded in 2017 to oversee anti-doping in the sport, with more stringent rules introduced for the most at-risk countries at the start of 2019.

David Howman, chairman of the AIU board, said: “National federations must play their part in supporting anti-doping efforts.

“The eligibility rules for athletes from ‘Category A’ countries are very clear and compliance is essential for cementing the required long-term changes and ensuring a level playing field for clean athletes.

“I must underline that there have been significant improvements in anti-doping efforts in most ‘Category A’ countries thanks to this rule. It is clear that the relevant national federations, in conjunction with their NADOs (national anti-doping organisations) have started to take their testing responsibilities seriously, and I thank them for their efforts, but there remains a long way to go in some circumstances.”

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