By Ian Ransom
MELBOURNE (Reuters) - While the COVID-19 pandemic put Olympic plans in the shredder for hundreds of Australian athletes hoping to compete in Tokyo in 2020, it has also disrupted winter sports programs for the 2022 Beijing Games.
Australia, which won three medals at the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, has shelved plans for training camps in the United States, Canada and Switzerland and is awaiting government advice on whether athletes can train locally with winter fast approaching.
Compared to the novel coronavirus outbreaks that have ravaged the United States and Europe, Australia has been relatively successful at containing the disease, recording less than 7,000 infections and 97 deaths.
Australian authorities have begun easing social restrictions after seeing infection rates plunge, but strict travel and border controls remain.
"In normal times, our athletes would have a month off around March and April, so it's really only now that they're noticing the difference," Geoff Lipshut, Australia's new team chef de mission for the Winter Olympics, told Reuters on Friday.
"We do have some coaches based overseas -- they won't be able to come over here, which is different.
"Normally the coaches would have come out for planning in May and in June for coaching.
"Once they're meant to be coaching (on-site) that's when the difference happens.
"I think everyone around the world just has to adjust to the changes."
A weaker Australian dollar could prove a headache when budgeting for overseas trips, though Lipshut did not expect that to be an issue over the longer term.
"I think the recent drop in the dollar as a part of COVID-19 is a shorter-term issue for us," he said.
"I think not actually travelling in the next couple of months is probably good."
HIT THE SLOPES
Australia is renowned for producing champions at Summer Olympics but it has also nurtured a slew of world class winter sports athletes since claiming a first Winter Olympics medal at the 1994 Lillehammer Games.
Consistent funding and training in the northern hemisphere has helped more Australian athletes onto Winter Games podiums, mainly in aerial skiing and moguls.
Snowboarder Scotty James, a triple world champion in halfpipe, and Laura Peel, who won the 2019/20 freestyle skiing World Cup, are among Australia's biggest medal hopes for Beijing.
Australia's ski season is due to open next month but there is no certainty that social restrictions will be eased to allow skiers to hit the slopes in the country's southern highlands.
Lipshut said he had not heard any advice from authorities and was reluctant to speculate on the chances of getting training programs up and running.
"I know that the resorts would love to open, they would love to find a way to do it, and safely within the social distancing requirements that are there," he said.
"But I think we’re feeling lucky just being in our country. The government’s done a great job, as have all Australians. The numbers have been fantastically managed."
There is hope athletes will be able to start practising at a new A$6.5 million ($4.24 million) freestyle ski-jumping facility adjacent to a swimming pool in the southern suburbs of sub-tropical Brisbane.
The year-round facility is the first of its kind in the southern hemisphere and Lipshut said he had his fingers crossed for athletes to start training there by the end of June.
"That's a world class training facility," he said.
"Whatever we can do to get back to sport would be great."
($1 = 1.5337 Australian dollars)
(Editing by Peter Rutherford)