At the start of April, Tom Daley tiptoed to the edge of a 10m board, inhaled deeply, and took his first competitive dive in more than a year. There were no crowds, or judges poolside, because of the pandemic. Instead in what was the world’s first virtual diving meet, British, Canadian, Jamaican and South African stars went head to head from their own training centres – with the scoring done remotely by a team of international judges.
That such an event was organised shows how much the world has changed since Covid-19 took a wrecking ball to the sporting calendar – as well as how hard it is to forecast what may happen when the Tokyo Olympics get under way in 100 days.
Yet at least some things remained reassuringly familiar. For when the scores were totted up, Daley, a three-times world champion and double Olympic medallist, easily won both the men’s 10m as well as the synchro 10m with his partner, Matty Lee.
Seasoned diving experts also noticed something else about Daley’s performance. Being forced out of the pool from March to September during the first lockdown led to the 26-year-old working on being significantly more flexible in his hips – with impressive results.
“We’ve all had to be creative and adaptable,” explains Jack Buckner, the chief executive of GB swimming and diving. “But to some extent we have relished these opportunities to do things a bit differently.”
Britain’s top divers, for instance, spent the spring and summer developing routines on dry land, using trampolines in their gardens – before sharing the results with their teammates on a Zoom bonding session.
When the pools closed, Britain’s swimmers pivoted towards circuits and weights – something that has remained a more substantial part of their training even after the pools reopened.
“Our team had already been challenging some of the orthodoxy in terms of the amount of swimming needed,” Buckner says. “But lockdown accelerated it. The other thing that’s been really exciting is seeing some of our female swimmers really come on this extra year, and especially Abbie Wood, Freya Anderson and Kathleen Dawson.”
Naturally the experiences vary by sport and athlete. Contact sports returned much later to full training than sailing and golf did. But everywhere necessity quickly became the mother of invention, whether it was badminton players training in hotel rooms, weightlifters building home gyms in their garage or, in the case of the hurdler Dai Greene, using farm equipment to keep his strength up.
Yet, inevitably, the lack of competition over the last 12 months has made the Olympic prediction business more choppy than usual. Normally with 100 days to go, the UK Sport offices in central London are a hive of activity, with the performances of every potential medal prospect being tracked and scrutinised. Right now, however, those rooms are gathering dust.
The weirdest thing is not competing. I’ve never had a year without a fight, since I had my first bout at 18
Galal Yafai, Team GB boxer
But Mark England, Team GB’s chef de mission, says that despite the unprecedented situation across the globe preparations are going “really well”. He forecasts that about 370 British athletes will make the Games – and that, for the first time, there will be more women than men in the team.
“We are still on course to qualify more women than men which is a brilliant opportunity for us to make history in Tokyo and will hopefully be a source of great inspiration for women and girls back at home,” he adds. “We have every confidence that we are going to take a very strong team to the Games, which I believe will be a unique and special chance to celebrate sport and humanity globally.”
England insists there is no doubt about the Games going ahead. And somewhere in the Pacific there is a giant cargo ship heading towards Tokyo with 45,000 teabags, 7,000 bags of crisps and nearly 8,000 porridge pots for Team GB stars at the Olympics – as well as a large selection of equipment.
So far 40 athletes across seven sports have been selected – while when the archery and swimming teams are announced at the end of April the team will stand at about 70. However, with many qualifying competitions being rescheduled, Team GB do not expect to announce their full team until early July.
One athlete in the team, the boxer Galal Yafai, has not fought since March 2020 but praises staff at GB Boxing for doing everything possible to get him in the best possible shape.
“During the first lockdown they sent out little bits of equipment, including push bikes, to keep us fit,” he says. “And since we have returned to Sheffield everything is done to keep us safe. So when we do pads with our coaches, for instance, they’re wearing the whole PPE – glasses, face masks, aprons, everything – while we have masks too. But we’re just thinking about the Olympics – so those things don’t really matter to us.”
He adds: “The weirdest thing is not competing. I’ve never had a year without a fight, since I had my first bout at 18.”
The sailor Giles Scott, who won gold in the Finn class at the Rio Olympics, has a similar story, having not competed in his event since the European championships in September last year. But he believes the muscle memory will kick in for him and others.
“I’ve been doing this a long time so hopefully there’s not too much rust to shake off,” he says. “I feel it’s all doable in time for the Games but it certainly feels like a bit of a tight run. And, ultimately, everyone is in a reasonably similar situation.”
Meanwhile, Buckner speaks for many in the Team GB setup when he predicts that the lessons learned during the Covid-19 era could end up being beneficial in the long run. “We’ve tried really hard to do what we call ‘pencil planning’ during the pandemic, where you write a plan and rub it out and then go again,” he explains.
“The whole world is facing a massively disruptive environment and who knows what may happen between now and the Olympics. But we are doing whatever we can to be the best prepared and the most adaptable. Hopefully it will mean that we will be ready for Tokyo – whatever it might throw at us.”