False Start of Tokyo 2020 Olympics Campaign; What does the Cancellation of the Olympics Mean for Young Training Athletes who were Working Towards Representing Australia for 2020?

(A feature article exploring what Australia’s Olympians are doing in order to maintain their fitness for a postponed Tokyo Olympics — Written July 2020)

The street lights flicker and a car siren can be heard billowing in the distance. It is a Thursday morning, 5:15 am and the entire street is asleep. All is quiet in Northmead apart from one house, the Katz household. With their lights glowing from the street, you wouldn’t think inside that house lives three Australian Olympians. Clattering and deep laughter can be heard that only come from a family of almost all boys. Brothers Nathan and Josh stumble out of their beds and stumble into the dim-lit kitchen where they find their mother Kerrye brewing herself a cup of instant coffee, similarly to a scene out of a teen drama show the boys sit at a worn down wooden table in the kitchen, sipping on their carefully measured protein smoothies. “Peanut butter and chocolate today! Need some chocolate therapy this morning” Smirks Josh as he knocks back the last of his morning coffee. Surprisingly far too energetic for 5:20 in the morning. There are some murmurs and giggles around the kitchen of what’s on for the day as Dad Rob shuffles into the kitchen and beams with pride as he watches his two sons from across the kitchen.

Breakfast is over and the boys walk through the Olympic-clad memorabilia hallway in single file and split off into their own separate quarters almost like soldiers. Their broad shoulders barely fit the frames of the beaten-down house, and the old wooden panels shudder with every step the two boys make. Music blasts from Nathan’s room — in efforts to lift spirits for their early morning training at their family-owned Dojo in Castle Hill. “My mother went to the Olympics in 1988 when Judo first became a demonstration sport for women, and my Dad was the coach for mum’s women’s team. They’ve both been national coaches for many years, and have been running the Budokan Judo Club for over 20 years now. Mum's role is manager and teaches the younger classes, and dad coaches the seniors and higher-level Judoas.”

Both boys never felt like there was pressure from their parents despite their strong background in Judo. Nathan felt “it was natural to try judo as [he] was always surrounded by it from such a young age. Josh and [him] would watch their parents teach at the club and they would play wrestle by the side”. As soon as they were old enough to try, they quickly became very passionate and found they never felt a similar passion for any other sports.

“Conditioning today?” Asks Nathan.

“Yes sir” salutes Josh, making his obedience to his older brother very apparent.

The boys stride into the Budokan Dojo and Josh flicks on the large industrial LED lights as though second nature. “I’ve probably been doing judo since I was about three or four, and we’ve owned this Dojo for as long as I can remember. It is essentially a second home to us all. Mum went to Seoul in 1988 and started training children here in Castle Hill ever since she finished her career as an olympian.”

“Budokan Dojo became Mum and Dad's third baby before Josh and I were born, and it’s honestly amazing how successful the gym has been,” says Nathan.

The boys tie black belts around their all-white Judo Gi uniforms and begin practicing throwdowns and wrestling each other onto a large foam mat. The boys train like this at 6 AM every morning and at the evening from Monday to Friday, with Sundays as their rest days off.

“Usually we train 12–14 sessions per week but it varies. Within a week of training, we cover a mix of weights, conditioning, Judo technical training, and sparring (practice fighting).

Research by the International Olympic History Society highlights that the Olympics have never officially been postponed like this before, however, they have been canceled during World War I and World War II.

After finding out about the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics early in the year, the boys have been following this routine in order to maintain their fitness and keep in good stead for the eventual Olympics which is targeted for 2021.

“Haha! I wish there was a dramatic jaw-dropping moment when I found out about the Olympics being postponed, but we actually were slowly working out as the committee was keeping us very well in the loop with the progression of what the Olympics was going to look like in 2021.”

“My initial reaction though was a definite disappointment because you can’t help but think that one date is such a big focus of four years of your life, and you start getting negative thoughts like ‘was that all for nothing’ or ‘did I just waste those past four years of my life?”.

“Especially as soon as we passed Rio, we were right back on to our intense training cycle working towards Tokyo 2020. There were so many rumors circulating amongst the community regarding whether the Olympics would actually be postponed, or whether it would just be canceled and that would be it, and I honestly think hearing about a cancellation rather than a postponement would be much more devastating.”

“I understand it’s not ideal, and it was disappointing for it not to be going ahead this year, but it is so important to understand what is going on in the world around us, and how much of a wild card this year really is for everyone.

Parents Kerrye and Robert were devastated when finding out about the postponement of the Olympics. “In terms of Kerrye and I, we were extremely disappointed but in terms of the boys — they were left with a much greater sense of disappointment. It was hard to watch them through all the build up of the anticipation and hard work both put into their year, being pulled from underneath them.”

The two take turns in speaking, one adding extra details to the story or a funny anecdote of fond memories of the brothers. It is clear they have been teammates in life for a very long time.

Kerrye reflected “how hard it was watching the boys try to muster up the courage to jump back onto their training regimes and continue to push on with their strict diet and lifestyle changes they make in order to be in the best shape for the Olympics.”

Robert chimes “the logistics of it all was actually extremely stressful for the Katz family as we had already purchased tickets and organized accommodation for Tokyo even though for RIO, where we were allowed to travel with the boys as their coaches, however for Tokyo that was not the case, and we were set back financially by this.”

“I remember at the very beginning of COVID-19 when it was out of control in Europe and just beginning to develop in Spain — the boys were over there training as there are better training facilities overseas compared to Australia. It was extremely frantic trying to get in contact with the Australian Embassy to get them home as soon as possible which was extremely frightening.”

Because of the lack of interest in Judo wrestling in Australia, the competition and options for training with harder opponents are not to the standard which can assist the two brothers in improving their training, and therefore have to travel to Dojos overseas such as Japan and Spain. Kerrye and Robert although are particularly disappointed in the outcome of the postponement, are both “happy the house is full like it used to be” before the boys became professional.

Social Media coordinator for the Australian Olympic Committee Georgia Thompson feels for this upcoming clan of Australian Olympians who were set to be competing in Tokyo this year.

“These athletes come from sports where the Olympics — their time to shine — is only once every four years. It is unlike any other sport like AFL or Cricket where you have ‘seasons’, rather they spend almost all their lives for such a small two-week block in a four year period, and I honestly really feel for them as this has been so abruptly pulled from underneath them.”

The Katz brothers are fortunate to have their own facility to keep up their training at, as unfortunately for some athletes “they are unable to access regular training facilities, even their coaches which can be a major disadvantage to their overall performance for the subsequent Olympics when it gets ahead.”

Georgia notes the Olympic committee has seen “a lot of Tokyo 2020 hopefuls that have decided to retire because they can’t continue the intense training regimes for another 12 months, and are fearful of training hard for another Olympics which won’t even go ahead.”

Upon asking the boys, Nathan noted he “never felt like the year had gone to waste after finding out about the 2020 season being postponed. [He] considers himself lucky as he got to go to one Olympics prior and has a larger understanding of how the four-year Olympic training cycle works.”

Nathan watches his younger brother practice with a trainer from the opposite and of the Dojo as we sit in a dusty row of chairs where parents of young Judoa’s would usually sit.

“Motivation wise at times it has been a little difficult at the beginning trying to find a new ‘at home’ style training regime. But now, less so because now that restrictions are beginning to lit again we’re seeing more competitions open up which is great because it gives us something to work towards. I guess it is still frustrating not having locked-in dates and how uncertain everything is regarding when things will go back to normal, but now I’m feeling n a really good place, feeling very motivated to work for a strong 2021.

“I always worry for Josh because he’s only a few years younger than me, but I fear he is putting too much into his training considering how insured he has been since Rio.”

Josh attended Rio at the young age of 18 and was titled the youngest Judoka to compete in the Olympics that year. However, during the match at the Olympics involving ligament and severe tendon damage to his elbow, requiring major surgery and off-season of recovery placed he at a slight disadvantage to his brother.

From an Olympic committee perspective, the postponement can actually be flipped and seen as a benefit to athletes who maybe wouldn’t have been able to make Tokyo for health and injury-related reasons.

Professor Mark Halaki from The faculty of Sports Science at the University of Sydney suggests that this time is the most critical for these athletes “as it can determine who will push through this 12 month training period.”

He comments how critical it is for potential athletes to utilize a ‘tapering’ method of training, which involves “progressively loading training, meaning the athletes should start at a comfortable level of training and fitness, and continue to add a load of training until they reach their required level of fitness for their discipline of the sport.”

There is such high importance for athletes such as Judoa’s to utilize a method such as tapering, as if they are not training enough over a long period of time and abruptly ramp up their regimes, their bodies will undergo major exhaustion and ultimately make themselves susceptible to serious injuries. “It is especially so important to increase training gradually so the types of injuries which come from overtraining are generally serious and long term ligament damage which require a long recovery period, and sometimes require operation and an intensive post-op rehabilitation process.

In an article released on DW Akedemie, sports scientist Lars Donath agrees with the importance of load-training and believes it is critical “for athletes to try to simulate competition-specific exercises as far as possible.” This involves unique forms of training such as ‘Pressurised Training’ which involves a strict time limit in which the demanding exercise is carried out. Another unique training technique that has been integrated into athletes' training includes training while weary, which “is critical in retaining and solidifying co-ordinative processes” which is critical to sports such as Judo.

“It is crazy to think this is all I really have, aside from my part-time media and sports science degree at Charles Sturt University which I am also pursuing. Because I am also living at home I don’t really have much financial pressure — or any pressure to get a job or be working for that matter.”

Most young Olympians in training complete a degree however at a part-time rate rather than full time to ensure a greater focus on their training rather than their academic achievements.

A similar story published by CNBC highlights the financial impact of the postponement to individual athletes. Monica Aksamit, is a 30-year-old fencer who represented the U.S in the Rio Olympics, she found it was “impossible to maintain a 9 to 5 job, given the physical demands of training and frequent travel to training camps.” She was previously flown out to compete in Europe for a World Cup in Greece which was later postponed, and ultimately lost a large sum of her money being stranded in Europe without a way to get back home. She has had to resort to “modeling, refereeing tournaments — even starting a GoFundMe page” to support herself.

Many athletes are faced with the threat of losing their connections with their sponsors, as they currently are not promoting brands enough during this off-season enough.

Nathan and Josh are both sponsored and are lucky enough to still be holding onto a sponsorship over the course of the COVID period.”

“It is really stressful though because sponsorships work on essentially a four-year cycle around the Olympics, and honestly we are still in the process of working out if we are going to continue working with this particular sponsor, as we are working out if it is worthwhile holding on to the sponsorship considering the uncertainty of Tokyo even happening next year. It is still a very ongoing issue and has probably come up as the one area of issue we weren’t expecting as we assumed we would just carry over our sponsorships until the next Olympics because this is such a unique time for the Olympic industry.”

Although unable to draw comment on behalf of any individual athletes, Georgia recognizes “every athlete’s experiences with sponsors is unique, and from an Olympic team point of view we are all in a sort of ‘damage control’ were being hyper-aware to ensure athletes are getting opportunities and exposure to our sponsors.”

This involves ensuring athletes are being exposed to digital media campaigns which both the Katz brothers were fortunate enough to be part of.

“The issue lies more in the fact that the Australian Olympic Committee, especially in NSW does not have enough funding to be seeking new media deals and new sponsors, especially companies which previously might have been looking to take on new ambassadors, unfortunately, don’t have the budget that they would previously have had. Generally, most of our sponsor companies have been doing it really tough and just can’t hold on to large sports deals.”

“We both used to do a bit of work for the Australian Olympic Committee, speaking at a number of schools, but we obviously can’t continue doing that under COVID restrictions, and the work was nowhere near enough to support our Judo.”

This positive attitude is shared amongst many of the inspiring Australian athletes aiming for the 2021 games, with Rohan Browning, 23-year-old sprinter who agrees the likelihood of Tokyo 2021 going ahead is strong. His optimism for 2021 always easily outweighed any disappointment from the delay and shares a similar sentiment to the Katz brothers that “COVID will favor the more resilient athletes. [He’s] a firm believer that sport is 90% mental, and COVID is a good test of character. The athletes who have been able to make the time productive are the ones who will perform in Tokyo in 2021.”

In a media release in September by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Vice President John Coates confirmed that the Olympics will start on the 23rd of July 2021, titling them as “the games that conquered COVID”.

In order to accommodate the pandemic, the Olympics will need to have ‘limited spectators’ and “will need to simplify its opening and closing ceremonies as well as reduce the number of staff and delegations from each country.”

Rob and Kerrye have a strong sense the boys will not be experiencing “the real Olympic experience like Rio was” and that the Olympic village culture and spectator culture will realistically not be something that is tangible given the current circumstances

“Honestly, it is just so important at the moment to not look at it in the grand scheme of things and take it week by week. I am focusing hard on using this time to the best of my ability as extra training time to be in the best form I can possibly be in. I am in headspace as though the Olympics are happening mid next year, which most people are at this point.”

“There honestly is no point entertaining the negative thoughts that it won’t go ahead because we have received enough assurance from the Olympic committee that it will go ahead, but I am expecting this next Olympics to be very different to what the normal Olympics we know looks like. I really don’t care if there are 10,000 or 3,000 or no spectators at the next games because what matters most to me is the support that I know I have from my family which is the same support that gets me out of bed at 5:15 in the morning.

The Australian Olympic Committee agrees that the upcoming games will look extremely different from previous years.

Georgie notes that being part of the 20th anniversary of the Sydney 2000 Olympic Games “had nothing but a positive sentiment and positive messaging from both the media and the athlete involved, and she likes to think that the Tokyo Olympics will bring a similar sentiment of bringing people together for a positive thing rather than a negative.

Robert and Kerrye chuckle as they both agree “you have to live on hope when your life becomes the Olympics.” Both parents are working hard to continue to drive their two sons to continue to push through this challenging time, despite the uncertainty around them.”

The Katz family are all hoping for the 2021 Olympics to go ahead, with a full understanding it will be an underwhelming and less spectacular event compared to the boys’ experience in Rio. “We are all focusing on the fact that it is nice to all be together as a family during this time.”

Despite the mutual sense of disappointment amongst all of the Australian and International athletes, it is clear that now is the most important time for them all to hone in on their training and utilise this year as an extended training period for the best performance for the 2021 Tokyo campaign.

Fourth Year Journalism and International Studies Student at the University of Technology in Sydney, Australia.