First stress test of 'Covid Games' may come when Japan play SA
The first major test of how an Olympics can be held in the midst of a pandemic may well come this week in the men's soccer tournament when Japan face a South Africa side that could struggle to field 11 players due to the novel coronavirus.
South Africa's squad was severely depleted by Covid-19 infections and withdrawals before they left for the Games and was then hit with the news that two players and a video analyst had tested positive on arrival in Tokyo.
Organisers said that 21 members of the delegation were close contacts, leaving SA walking a tightrope ahead of Thursday's match against the hosts.
The Olympic playbook on coronavirus prevention measures mandates that to compete a close contact must return daily negative PCR tests, including one within six hours of competition.
They must also undergo a health check by an expert and receive permission from their international sporting federation.
Fifa regulations stipulate a team must have 13 available players for a match to go ahead and South Africa coach David Notoane said the daily testing means he has no idea who will be able to take the field to face the Japanese.
"You are not even sure who will be eligible for your (starting) 11 because of the situation we are in, testing every day," he told reporters about the team, who returned to training on Monday after a week off the pitch.
"Their (Japan's) physical readiness compared to us will be a key issue. It will make a huge difference. We basically lost seven days and that is hard to recover from."
There have been 58 positive cases of Olympics-linked athletes, staff or officials recorded in Japan this month.
On Monday, a Czech beach volleyball player tested positive at the Olympic Village while an alternate for the U.S. women's gymnastics team tested positive at the site of their pre-Games training camp just outside Tokyo.
Notoane is now fearful that that daily testing at the Games could rob him of more players before their opener as more potentially come out of the incubation phase of the virus.
"Our key player (Kamohelo Mahlatsi) tested positive, we were building our game-plan around him. Our job has become more difficult. But at the end of the day we have to put up a team on Thursday to face up to the might of Japan."
Notoane said it was inevitable that South Africa's Covid-19 challenges will catch up with them in what is already a difficult pool that also contains France and Mexico.
"This storm can just swallow you, that is the fight we are going to have in terms of the off-field influences. Our biggest opponent is not Japan to be honest, it’s the outside factors that are playing out.
"Because it has become about more than football. Physically, we are at a huge disadvantage against a team that is highly athletic."
Notoane rued the fact that his side, who returned to training on Monday after a week without being on the pitch, will limp into a contest that will have the eyes of the watching world fixed on it.
"I hope we will give a good fight because, apart from winning, the spirit of the Olympics is about coming together to participate and give your best performance in representing your country."
Would you like to comment on this article or view other readers' comments? Register (it’s quick and free) or sign in now.
Please read our Comment Policy before commenting.