British hopes for a best-ever medal haul at next month’s Winter Olympics could be compromised by surging coronavirus rates that threaten to leave athletes’ participation in Beijing in the balance.
More than five medals – the top end of the expected medal range of three to seven confirmed on Thursday by UK Sport – would constitute a history-making mark for Team GB whose final team for the Games is set to number in the mid-fifties.
But first there is the task of negotiating the next few weeks Covid-free, with Team GB chef de mission Georgie Harland conceding there could be setbacks as athletes submit to an unprecedented barrage of last-minute testing.
Harland said: “Our sports and our athletes have been managing this for two years. Of course things have become much more complex recently, but we are working very closely with them on the testing protocols.
“Can I guarantee that we will have 100 per cent of our athletes on the start line? I can’t guarantee that as I sit here today, but we are doing all we can to support athletes in this build-up to the Games.”
All selected British athletes will be vaccinated prior to the Games, and will submit to multiple PCR and lateral flow tests before boarding a special charter flight to China, where they will enter a ‘closed loop’, sealed off from the Chinese public for the duration of their stay.
The difficult build-up has been amplified for many freestyle and snowboard athletes, who continue to travel to critical final qualifying events, while some are scheduled to compete at next week’s Winter X Games in Aspen.
GB Snowsport chief executive Vicky Gosling likened the task of steering athletes safely to the Games as a “military operation”, and echoed Harland’s fears that the surging Omnicron variant could wreck some Olympic dreams.
“We have faced some unprecedented challenges, with a combination of Covid keeping our athletes off the snow for long periods, and competitions being cancelled,” Gosling told the PA news agency.
“There are many hurdles still to jump in terms of making sure we don’t have anyone positive when we board that plane. It’s a very lengthy process and you can’t guarantee everyone is going to get through it.
“It would be great if we could wrap them in cotton wool but we can’t because we are still qualifying athletes. At the moment we don’t know if we are going to get everyone to their qualifying competitions, never mind the Olympics.”
Team GB look well-placed to achieve the top end of UK Sport’s broad target, with the likes of snowboard stars Charlotte Bankes and Katie Ormerod, bobsledders Brad Hall and Mica McNeill, and skeleton’s Marcus Wyatt all achieving World Cup podiums this season.
In addition, Bruce Mouat and Jen Dodds will enter the mixed doubles curling competition as reigning world champions, while Eve Muirhead will hope to make experience count at her fourth Games.
Amid the potential avalanche of podium places, BOA chief executive Andy Anson insists the organisation will not stand in the way of any athletes who choose to express their opinions.
But with ongoing human rights concerns and the continued controversy surrounding Chinese tennis player Peng Shuai, Anson said he would advise them to make “sensible” decisions if they wish to take a stand.
“We definitely want our athletes to be respectful of the athletes they are standing on the podium with, (but) we are not going to stifle their freedom of expression,” said Anson.
“We’ve told the athletes all along that we’re very happy for them to express themselves but to be sensible and to ideally touch base with those if they feel that they’re doing anything at all controversial.”
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