In Africa, virus ruins Olympic dreams and tests dedication

Jul 8, 2021, 12:55 AM | Updated: 1:07 pm

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — The dreaded test results came back positive for COVID-19 and the illness descended on South African swimmer Erin Gallagher.

In the span of a few days, she went from elite Olympic athlete in peak condition to lying flat on a bed concentrating on the most basic of physical functions. Just keep breathing, she told herself.

The Tokyo Olympics and the dream she’d been chasing for years suddenly seemed out of reach.

“Those were extremely dark times,” Gallagher said. “I couldn’t really see any possible way where I could get to Tokyo. In the back of my mind there was this voice saying, ‘Erin, you’re not going to make it, I don’t think, so rather quit now and just focus on regaining your health.'”

Gallagher’s brush with the coronavirus late last year was extreme and yet she’s one of the lucky ones, even if it took her months to fully recover. She came through it with her health and Olympic ambitions in tact. The 22-year-old is heading to the Games as part of a South African women’s medley relay team expected to contend for a medal.

No such luck for many other African hopefuls.

As the virus surges again across the continent just as the Olympics approach, the pandemic has done more than just upend plans and make training, traveling and getting precious pre-Games competition tricky for Africa’s athletes. It has ruined dreams.

Take the Senegal basketball team, which made it to the final qualifying tournament for Tokyo last month, only for three players and an official to test positive for the virus on the eve of the competition. The entire squad was sent home, with no chance at the Olympics even for the players not infected and years until another opportunity comes along.

At 33, Nigerian basketball player Micheal Eric probably won’t get another shot. He contracted the virus and, though he was cleared to return to Nigeria’s squad after two weeks in isolation, he said he realized he was “in no physical shape to compete.” He withdrew from the squad and gave up what’s likely to be his only chance to go to the Olympics.

“Being an Olympian has been my lifelong dream,” he said. “But I know I must do what’s best for my health and well-being.”

Even one of the biggest names hasn’t been spared. World record-holder David Rudisha of Kenya won’t be in Tokyo seeking a third consecutive gold medal in the 800 meters after the 32-year-old’s attempts to qualify following injuries were complicated by the pandemic. So might end the Olympic career of one of track’s great middle-distance runners.

While there’s probably not an Olympian on the planet who hasn’t faced a COVID-19-related challenge over the last 18 months, Africa’s new wave of cases and desperate vaccine shortages have led to lockdowns being reinforced and the return of training restrictions, partly because no one wants to get the virus now with just weeks to go.

Ghana’s boxing team went months without sparring against other fighters because of fears of virus transmission and have still barely laid a glove on an opponent in the run-up to Tokyo. Instead, the Ghanaians have resorted to shadow boxing in front of a mirror in their own rooms at a team hotel in preparation for the biggest competition of their lives. Instructions from their coach are delivered via WhatsApp from his room down the hall.

“It’s just yourself in your room and trying to just keep up with a regime that will put you in shape for a competition that you want to make a mark at,” flyweight Suleimanu Tetteh said.

For decades, Kenya’s dominating distance runners have trained for the Olympics in groups of 30 or more and alongside budding young athletes they use as pacemakers. Not this year.

Frustrated at restrictions, Moroccan judoka Soumaya Iraoui gave up on her regular training regime to research the art of “mental imagery,” she said. She’s spent much of her time working on her mental focus while home alone.

The isolation of the pandemic hasn’t bothered Zimbabwean rower Peter Purcell-Gilpin, who competes in the single scull and trains alone. “I’m isolated most of the time,” he said.

But he needed water and time with his coach in person before Tokyo. So he traveled from his training base in Britain to Zambia in southern Africa so he could link up with his Zimbabwe-based coach and do some work for three months in real conditions on open water.

“You have to focus on the controllables and make the best plan that you can,” Purcell-Gilpin said.

Gallagher’s struggle with COVID-19 didn’t end when her main symptoms subsided. When she returned to swimming she was exhausted after just a few laps, experienced chest pains and visited a cardiologist, who assured her that her heart was fine. It just needed time.

She spent hours training in her own pool at home, getting past the problem of it being way too small by connecting herself to an elastic rope and swimming on the spot.

Her coronavirus experience was ultimately enlightening, she said. She thought she was ready to listen to that voice that told her to give up on the Olympics. But the virus also revealed what going to the Games really meant to her.

“There was another voice saying, ‘Erin, don’t give up, this has been your dream all your life,'” she said. “‘You have to do everything you possibly can to get there.'”


Associated Press writers Thahir Asmal in Durban, South Africa, Francis Kokutse in Accra, Ghana, and Enock Muchinjo in Harare, Zimbabwe contributed to this report.


More AP Olympics: https://apnews.com/hub/2020-tokyo-olympics and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

Copyright © The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.


Associated Press

Ex-Packer Guion gets 1 year for domestic violence assault

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — Former Green Bay Packers defensive tackle Letroy Guion was sentenced to one year in jail after pleading no contest in a domestic violence assault at his home last fall. Brown County Circuit Court Judge Thomas Walsh also ordered Guion on Tuesday to serve three years’ probation and complete a domestic […]

7 months ago

Joe Jarzynka...

Associated Press

Durant eager for Suns debut vs. Hornets after knee injury

CHARLOTTE, N.C. (AP) — Kevin Durant has been through quite a bit during his 15-year NBA career — but joining a new team midway through the season is a new one for the 13-time All-Star. The 34-year-old Durant doesn’t seem all that worried. Durant makes his highly anticipated Phoenix Suns debut on Wednesday night against […]

7 months ago

FILE - Miami Dolphins head coach Brian Flores stands on the sideline during the second half of an N...

Associated Press

Judge: NFL coach can press discrimination claims in court

NEW YORK (AP) — NFL Coach Brian Flores can pursue some of his discrimination claims against the league and its teams in court rather than through arbitration, a judge ruled Wednesday. The written decision by Judge Valerie Caproni in Manhattan was issued months after lawyers for the league tried to get the lawsuit moved to […]

7 months ago

Chicago Blackhawks goaltender Alex Stalock cools off in the first period during an NHL hockey game ...

Associated Press

Kane trade reinforces hard reality of Blackhawks rebuild

CHICAGO (AP) — After days of speculation, the harsh reality of the Chicago Blackhawks’ situation was reinforced by one move in a flurry of transactions ahead of the NHL trade deadline. Showtime is over, at least in Chicago, and a seemingly bright future is, well, way off in the distance. The reverberations of Chicago’s decision […]

7 months ago

FILE -  Yves Jean-Bart, president of the Haitian Football Federation, wearing a protective face mas...

Associated Press

Disgraced ex-Haitian soccer president announces he’s back

PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti (AP) — Haiti’s former soccer federation president whose lifetime ban from sport over sexual abuse allegations was overturned last month announced Wednesday that he is reclaiming his position. Yves Jean-Bart’s defiant announcement could lead to a standoff with FIFA, which already has appointed an emergency management committee to lead the Haitian Football Association […]

7 months ago

FILE - Green Bay Packers' Aaron Rodgers walks off the field after an NFL football game against the ...

Associated Press

Rodgers says decision on future will come ‘soon enough’

GREEN BAY, Wis. (AP) — Aaron Rodgers says he will make a decision on his future “soon enough” as the four-time MVP quarterback ponders whether to play next season and if his future remains with the Green Bay Packers. Rodgers, 39, discussed his future while speaking on an episode of the “Aubrey Marcus Podcast” that […]

7 months ago

In Africa, virus ruins Olympic dreams and tests dedication