Virus surges fuel fears 100 days before Tokyo Olympics

Virus surges fuel fears 100 days before Tokyo Olympics
French judoka Teddy Rinerm, center, during a videoconference meeting for the 100 days ahead of the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 on Wednesday. (AFP)
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Updated 14 April 2021

Virus surges fuel fears 100 days before Tokyo Olympics

Virus surges fuel fears 100 days before Tokyo Olympics
  • Cancellation is “certainly not” on the table, International Olympic Committee (IOC) Vice President John Coates told reporters on Wednesday

TOKYO: A western Japanese city canceled the Tokyo Olympics torch relay over spiking coronavirus cases on Wednesday, fueling fresh fears about whether the pandemic-postponed Games should go ahead with just 100 days until the opening ceremony.

Even as Tokyo unveiled installations featuring the Olympic rings and mascots to celebrate the 100-day milestone, organizers face monumental challenges as virus surges.

Organizers have barred overseas fans and postponed test events, but they insist preparations are on track.

Cancellation is “certainly not” on the table, International Olympic Committee (IOC) Vice President John Coates told reporters on Wednesday.

“The Tokyo Games will be the light at the end of the tunnel.”

For organizers, there are some causes for optimism.

The Olympic torch is on its way across Japan, despite being forced off public roads in the Osaka region where it was being carried around a closed circuit Wednesday with the general public kept away.

And vaccination programs are ramping up in many countries, with some athletes already inoculated.

Japan won’t require Olympic participants to be vaccinated, but the IOC is encouraging jabs and has secured Chinese-made doses for athletes in countries without access to them.

In Japan, sports events are still on, with crowd numbers capped, and fans have become used to virus rules that will be implemented at this summer’s Games, including a ban on cheering.

North Korea’s decision to skip Tokyo 2020 over virus concerns has not prompted a rush for the exits, with athletes mostly seeming impatient for a return to the international stage.

“These past 14 months have been very motivating for all of us,” five-time Olympic gold medallist swimmer Katie Ledecky said last week.

“Once we get there we really want to show the world all the work that we’ve put in.”

In Japan, a historic golf Masters win by Hideki Matsuyama and swimmer Rikako Ikee’s comeback, just two years after being diagnosed with leukemia, are offering a feel-good factor.

But there’s no disguising the challenges more than a year after the historic postponement.

COVID-19 surges across Japan have forced the government to tighten restrictions only weeks after they were lifted and on Wednesday, the head of Tokyo’s Medical Association warned the rising infections could make holding the Games “really difficult.”

The governor of western Ehime region announced the public torch relay will be scrapped in the city of Matsuyama, citing the “extreme pressure” on local medical services from rising cases.

Coates acknowledged the situation, but insisted organizers and Olympic officials have prepared for “the worst possible scenarios.”

“Of course we’re concerned, of course safety remains our priority, but we believe that we’re prepared for the worst situations.”

Organizers have released “playbooks” outlining anti-virus measures, which will be updated later this month.

Tens of thousands of athletes and other Olympic participants arriving from overseas will be able to skip quarantine, and are not required to show proof of vaccination.

But athletes will be asked to limit their movements, stay only at the Olympic village during their events and face regular virus testing.

Overseas fans have already been barred from the Games, and a decision on domestic spectator numbers could come in April.

Still, the atmosphere will be far from the usual rowdy celebrations, and it remains unclear how strong demand for tickets will be when they finally go back on sale.

Polls show most Japanese back either a further postponement or cancellation, but the numbers in favor of holding the Games this summer have crept up, to around 27 percent in March, from just 11 percent in January.

In Tokyo, residents expressed mixed feelings about the prospect of the Games.

“In these dark times, anything that will brighten up the day, like getting a gold medal, or anything that can energise will be appreciated,” 27-year-old Kenzo Tanaka told AFP.

But Midori Hinamoto, 65, said she felt “the situation is uncertain.”

“I think the Olympics should be cancelled, if that’s possible.”

Olympic organisers acknowledge the mood, but said they expect it to shift once athletes take the stage.

“Every time, we are inspired by their strength and resilience, and that will be truer than ever this year,” they said in response to questions from AFP.


Egypt stun Germany to reach men’s handball semifinals at Tokyo 2020

After the final whistle, there were joyous celebrations from the Egyptian team on the court along with the millions of fans who watched from home or followed on social media. (AFP)
After the final whistle, there were joyous celebrations from the Egyptian team on the court along with the millions of fans who watched from home or followed on social media. (AFP)
Updated 38 min 17 sec ago

Egypt stun Germany to reach men’s handball semifinals at Tokyo 2020

After the final whistle, there were joyous celebrations from the Egyptian team on the court along with the millions of fans who watched from home or followed on social media. (AFP)
  • The North African nation will meet France in the semi-finals on Thursday as its improbable run for an Olympic medal continues
  • Ahmed El-Ahmar starred for Egypt during its 31-26 win over Germany

DUBAI: Egypt are just one win away from securing their first-ever Olympic medal in the men’s handball event while a possible rematch against Denmark looms.

The North African nation stormed into the semifinals at the 2020 Tokyo Games with a 31-26 victory over Germany on Tuesday afternoon at the Yoyogi National Stadium.

Egypt’s win sets up a final-four meeting against France on Thursday while Spain takes on the Danes in the other semi-final.

The Egyptian players got off to a fast start against Germany and opened a 6-1 lead inside the first 10 minutes. The Germans would eventually catch up but Egypt went into the intermission leading 16-12.

Egypt maintained their momentum after the break as Ahmed El-Ahmar carried on the strong form he has shown throughout the tournament.

After the final whistle, there were joyous celebrations from the Egyptian team on the court along with the millions of fans who watched from home or followed on social media.

The Pharaohs defeated Bahrain 30-20 in their final preliminary match on Sunday to take second in Group B and progress to the quarterfinals.

With a 4-1 record, Egypt finished behind group winners Denmark — the only team to beat Egypt in group play — to book their quarterfinal place against Germany. If both Egypt and Denmark win their next matches, they will meet again in the final as the Egyptians could take aim at their first-ever handball medal at the Olympics.

Egypt opened their Olympic handball campaign with a 37-31 win over Portugal on July 24, but two days later, they lost the second fixture to Denmark, 32-27. The Egyptian team rallied by beating hosts Japan (33-29), Sweden (27-22), and then fellow Arab competitors Bahrain ​​(30-20).


Italy, Spain to host football tournament in support of Saudi Quality of Life project

Italy, Spain to host football tournament in support of Saudi Quality of Life project
Updated 03 August 2021

Italy, Spain to host football tournament in support of Saudi Quality of Life project

Italy, Spain to host football tournament in support of Saudi Quality of Life project
  • Proceeds from tournament to be donated to center specialized in cardiology
  • Mahd Academy to sponsor event as part of efforts to support medical, sports research centers

ROME: Four of the best football teams in Italy and Spain will play a tournament in Florence and Seville to support medical and sports research centers as part of the Quality of Life project, one of the programs of the Saudi Vision 2030.

On Aug. 7, the football teams AS Roma, ACF Fiorentina, Espanyol de Barcelona and Real Betis will kick off the first edition of the Unbeatables Cup, organized by the Italian association Unbeatables with the sponsorship of the Mahd Academy, the Saudi government body for supporting the development of sports disciplines in Saudi Arabia.

The cup will be played in two matches: Fiorentina-Espanyol at 7:00 p.m. in Florence and Betis-Roma at 10:00 p.m. in Seville.

All the proceeds of the tournament will be donated to a research center specialized in cardiology at the service of the world’s athletes.

Unbeatables was established in 2016 by ex-athletes affected by inherited cardiac arrhythmias.

In the aftermath of what happened to footballer Christian Eriksen, who collapsed suddenly after suffering cardiac arrest during Denmark’s Euro 2020 opener against Finland, as well as to many other footballers around the world, it was clear that the matter deserved widespread attention.

“Congenital cardiomyopathies are a silent killer. They can remain asymptomatic for years and, when not diagnosed, appear suddenly, causing cardiac death. Young athletes often pay the highest price because intense physical activity may be an important trigger. Promptly identifying the people most at risk of sudden death through screening activities is essential to implement prevention strategies and appropriate therapies. Only in this way can we be able to save more lives, on and off the playing field,” said Unbeatables Chairman Simone Ambrosi.

The Mahd Academy’s sponsorship of the Unbeatables Cup is part of the academy’s efforts to support medical and sports research centers around the world.

Established in July 2020, the academy aims to provide research related to the sports community as well as to discover and develop talent to build the next generation of athletes in Saudi Arabia, as part of the Quality of Life project.

Abdullah bin Faisal bin Hammad, president of Mahd Academy, expressed his appreciation for the royal approval to sponsor this tournament.

He extended his sincere thanks to HRH Prince Abdul Aziz bin Turki Al-Saud, minister of sports, for his keenness to participate in such initiatives that promote sports around the world.

“The Mahd Academy will continue to support such initiatives,” he said in a statement, reaffirming the academy’s primary goals of achieving positive social impact through sports and supporting athletic talent in Saudi Arabia.


Formula 1 Grand Prix ‘biggest sporting event’ ever staged in Saudi Arabia: Prince Khalid

Formula 1 Grand Prix ‘biggest sporting event’ ever staged in Saudi Arabia: Prince Khalid
Updated 03 August 2021

Formula 1 Grand Prix ‘biggest sporting event’ ever staged in Saudi Arabia: Prince Khalid

Formula 1 Grand Prix ‘biggest sporting event’ ever staged in Saudi Arabia: Prince Khalid
  • Chairman of Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation talks to Arab News about December’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, ticket sales, F1 legacy

JEDAH: Saudi Arabia was gearing up for “the biggest sporting event the country has ever hosted” when Formula 1 racing roars into Jeddah later this year.

Prince Khalid bin Sultan Al-Faisal, chairman of the Saudi Automobile and Motorcycle Federation, made his comment about the milestone sporting occasion when he spoke to Arab News ahead of the penultimate round of the Formula 1 World Championship being staged in the Red Sea port city.

Motorsport fans in Saudi Arabia have been rushing to snap up tickets for the first-ever Formula 1 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix which will take place on the streets of Jeddah from Dec. 3 to 5.

Grandstand, premium hospitality, and paddock club tickets went on sale earlier this week and already demand in the Kingdom has been high.

Government restrictions on spectators at sporting events due to the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic mean that only a 40 percent capacity crowd can currently be allowed, but it is hoped that more tickets could be released over the coming weeks if the virus outbreak is contained through the global roll out of vaccines.

Prince Khalid highlighted progress on preparations for the event in Jeddah and spoke about the legacy the race would have going forward.

How have early ticket sales been and do you expect the capacity to increase from the current 40 percent restriction?

After tickets went on sale, we have already seen a strong demand in just the first few days. It’s important to say this race is for everyone. We want to offer everybody a fair price so fans can come to the race with their friends and family and enjoy an amazing event.

We love motorsport and we love Formula 1 in Saudi Arabia and the people have been waiting many years for a race to take place in our country.

Although the government has lifted some restrictions, we are still only allowed 40 percent capacity, but we are optimistic we can have full occupancy of the Jeddah Corniche Circuit by December.

With 70 percent of the population vaccinated (against COVID-19) and cases not as high as they used to be, we are heading in the right direction. This is great news for the 2021 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

What can fans expect when they attend the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix?

First of all, the Red Sea and the Jeddah Corniche is one of the most amazing places in the world and the weather in December is beautiful.

There will be so much on offer during the three-day event which, aside from the Formula 1 race, will be full of many supporting activities and entertainment, with live concerts, great food, art, and culture to discover in the fan zones around the track and city.

We like entertainment and we like sports, and many Saudis have to travel abroad for many of these events. Now we can offer the people of our country our own unique experience.

Formula 1 street races are usually held on tight, twisty tracks, but the Jeddah Corniche Circuit is set to be one of the longest and fastest on the whole of the calendar. How did this come about?

We know with street races we are quite limited in our options due to the nature of the public roads, but the location we found in Jeddah wasn’t fully developed. That gave us a lot of flexibility to create a very fast street track which will provide us with a very exciting race with a predicted average top speed of over 250 kilometers per hour.

The initial plan was to create a permanent circuit and motorsports city at Qiddiya near Riyadh, and that will host a race in 2023. But as we have such a big fan base here, and 70 percent of our population are aged under 30, we wanted to accelerate our hosting of a Formula 1 race, so chose to create this street track in Jeddah.

As we are four months away from our first race, now all of the infrastructure — drainage, sewers, electricity — is all complete. We expect the track will be ready by early October and all the main buildings, such as the pits, done by early November.

Considering the restrictions of working under COVID-19 regulations, it has been a challenge, but we have a very professional team working on this project that has made this mission possible, not mission impossible.

This year there is a fascinating battle between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen. What are your thoughts on Saudi Arabia potentially hosting the title decider?

I’ve really enjoyed the fight between the Mercedes and Red Bull this year. I was at Silverstone for the British Grand Prix recently and this is what everybody wants to see, the top drivers fighting for the title and for it to go down to the wire.

We wish for it to continue, and we don’t want either side to dominate. We want to see hard and safe racing and for the best team to win.

Why is it important for Saudi Arabia to host a Formula 1 Grand Prix?

It’s the next step on our motorsport journey. We first hosted Formula E, the Dakar Rally, the Cross-Country Baja Rally, and these have been very important for us as we wanted to showcase our country to the world. We also need to think about our future and tourism is important for our economy.

But it’s more than that. We are also bringing motorsport to the people of Saudi Arabia, not only for them to enjoy but to be inspired.

We are building a team to manage this race and as Saudis we want the majority of people who work on this project to be from this country. We have enthusiastic young people in Saudi to show the world what we can do as a nation.

Formula 1 is important to us because it is the pinnacle of motorsport, the most exciting race series in the world, and the biggest sporting event that Saudi Arabia will host.

What will be the lasting legacy of the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix?

We want to inspire people. We want opportunities to build careers in motorsport. One day we want to have a Saudi race driver, a man or a woman, racing in Formula 1 and winning the World Championship.

We want to have Saudi engineers, mechanics, marshals, journalists. For us it’s about building and creating an industry and we want events in the future to be organized and run by the locals here.

We are bringing the race to the Saudis for them to be a part of that story and to enjoy its legacy. That’s why it’s important to align with institutions, such as King Abdul Aziz University, and to have as many people as possible from Saudi Arabia engaged in Formula 1 and to be a part of this amazing opportunity. I can’t wait for the race to start.


Double semifinal heartbreak for Egypt in men’s wrestling at Tokyo 2020

Double semifinal heartbreak for Egypt in men’s wrestling at Tokyo 2020
Updated 03 August 2021

Double semifinal heartbreak for Egypt in men’s wrestling at Tokyo 2020

Double semifinal heartbreak for Egypt in men’s wrestling at Tokyo 2020
  • Mohammed Ibrahim Elsayed, Mohammed Metwally will now fight in 67-kg, 87-kg bronze medal matches, respectively

RIYADH: There was double semifinal Olympics heartbreak for Egypt’s Mohammed Ibrahim Elsayed and Mohammed Metwally as the athletes on Tuesday lost their respective last four contests in the men’s wrestling Greco-Roman competition at Tokyo 2020.

Both will return to the mat tomorrow for a chance to claim bronze.

Elsayed exited the 67-kilogram competition after a tense 7-6 semifinal loss to Ukrainian Parviz Nasibov at Makuhari Messe Hall. The Egyptian had taken a 5-0 lead and looked set to progress to the final, but a series of late mistakes saw him lose the contest in an agonizing manner.

In the 87-kg category, Metwally lost 9-2 to Viktor Lorincz of Hungary, who will now contest the final against the Ukrainian Zhan Beleniuk, who beat Croatian Ivan Huklek 7-1 in their semifinal.

Metwally and Huklek will meet in the 87-kg bronze medal contest on Wednesday afternoon.

In the earlier 67-kg semifinal, Iranian Mohammed Reza Geraei defeated Ramaz Zoidze of Georgia 6-1, and will now meet Nasibov in the Wednesday final, taking place from 12:15 p.m. Saudi time. Elsayed will take on Zoidze in the bronze medal match.

It had been a promising day for the Arab fighters until the semifinal stage.

In the early hours of Tuesday, Metwally had beaten Cuba’s Daniel Hechavarria 4-0 in the quarterfinals of the 87-kg competition after a crushing 9-1 win against Kiryl Maskevich of Belarus in the previous qualifying round.

Elsayed had a tougher time in his 67-kg matches, edging South Korea’s Hansu Ryu in his first bout, and getting another slim victory over Karen Aslanyan of Armenia in their quarterfinal bout.


Olympic fallout: Are young Saudi footballers being hampered by SPL’s 7-foreigner rule?

Olympic fallout: Are young Saudi footballers being hampered by SPL’s 7-foreigner rule?
Updated 03 August 2021

Olympic fallout: Are young Saudi footballers being hampered by SPL’s 7-foreigner rule?

Olympic fallout: Are young Saudi footballers being hampered by SPL’s 7-foreigner rule?
  • Clubs in Kingdom continue to count on overseas players for goals, with negative consequences on Saudi U-23 team at Tokyo 2020

RIYADH: Now the Olympics football tournament is over, attention has quickly turned to the start of the new Saudi Professional League (SPL) season next week.

Take a quick look at the headlines and social media and there is not much being said about what happened in Japan as the young Falcons lost all three games at Tokyo 2020. But there are the usual significant number of reports and rumors as to which foreign stars are heading to the league. The two are connected, however.

There is no doubt that there are some top-class foreign players in Saudi Arabia who bring a lot to their clubs and the league. Stars such as French striker Bafetimbi Gomis and Syrian sharpshooter Omar Al-Somah light up the league on and off the pitch.

Looking ahead to the new season there will be speculation about whether Al-Hilal will make it three in a row or if Al-Ahli will return to the running, but there is one certainty: The top scorer next season will not be Saudi Arabian.

Saudi Arabia’s league is unusual in Asia in that it does not limit the number of foreign players to four in the way many do, with each club allowed to sign and field seven overseas footballers.

And it is no surprise that attackers from around the world are in demand. After all, scoring goals is the hardest thing in football to do, so why would clubs and coaches not look to import solutions?

Gomis, a powerful, skillful striker, fiery yet with ice-cool composure in the area, is one of the best center-forwards in Asia. He was the top scorer in the 2019 AFC Champions League as Al-Hilal picked up a third continental championship. Others played their part but the former French international made the difference at crucial times. The likes of Abderrazzak Hamdallah of Morocco and Cristian Guanca of Argentina were other stars last season.

It is not just the title-chasing clubs that have goal scorers from abroad. Swede Carlos Strandberg scored 16 goals, more than a third of Abha’s total in the SPL, and those strikes played a major part in the club staying up by a point.

In short, in Saudi Arabia, all the teams look to foreigners for goals. This can help the local defenders gain some vital experience in facing a variety of strikers from all over the world. For young center-backs there can be few better learning curves available than one which features clashes against the physical Gomis, the artful Guanca, and the single-minded Strandberg.

This attacking talent can flourish anywhere in the world and if any defender can learn to hold their own against them then they have nothing to fear and plenty to look forward to.

But what about the local strikers? There are consequences for this love of international attackers. Increasingly the home-grown forwards are getting fewer chances to develop. Just look at the goalscoring charts for last season; none of the top 10 were from Saudi Arabia. The highest-ranked was Hassan Al-Amri at No. 12 and seven of his 12 goals for Al-Qadisiyah came from the spot. In contrast, six of the most prolific 10 players in Japan were locals.

This is obviously a worry. If teams look overseas for striking talent, then there are fewer opportunities for locals.

At the Olympics, many hopes were placed on the shoulders of Abdullah Al-Hamdan who made headlines when signing for Al-Hilal from Al-Shabab in January. It was hoped that the 21-year-old was the answer to the search for the next Sami Al-Jaber. Yet the forward struggled to get into games in Japan, looked off the pace, and was easy for defenders to handle. That should not be a surprise given that he has been a bit-part player for Al-Hilal, playing a full league game just once since joining the club.

If he cannot get a run of games then he is unlikely to be able to make the difference against defenders from the Ivory Coast, Germany, and Brazil.

And if it was not tough enough for the player last season, Al-Hilal have added Moussa Marega from Porto. The 30-year-old Malian marksman scored plenty in Portugal and is likely to slot straight into the starting line-up when the new season kicks off.

So, what is a promising young striker such as Al-Hamdan to do? If he does not get much playing time, then he has to move but the same issues exist in other clubs in Saudi Arabia. Moving overseas may be the answer but is not an easy one, especially when Saudi strikers have little reputation internationally, partly due to the fact that they are squeezed out of their starting elevens at home.

Nobody could blame a coach for pushing a talented young player in Riyadh or Jeddah toward midfield or the wings. It is a vicious circle. While foreigners dominate the scoring charts, the demand for them will continue to rise. This reduces the chances for the locals; if they are not playing, they are not scoring, and so clubs continue to look overseas.

There is no easy answer or quick fix but reducing the number of imports from seven to four would be a step in the right direction.