Two years ago, Nick Suriano put his life on hold to pursue an Olympic dream.
National collegiate wrestling champion Suriano took a year off from Rutgers to prepare for the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo. After the Games were postponed for a year due to the coronavirus pandemic, Suriano doubled up, skipping another year of college and moving to Phoenix from his home in New Jersey to join a special training group.
For eight months, he thought of nothing but maintaining his health and claiming a spot on the United States team by winning at the Olympic trials. Many considered him to be the favorite in the 125-pound category. “I was at the healthiest point of my life,” he said.
But just days before testing began, April 2 in Texas, a nasal swab changed everything. Suriano tested negative for the coronavirus before boarding a plane to Fort Worth, then tested positive shortly after arriving.
He never had the chance to take the mat. His Olympic dream, years in the making, was over.
“It’s a lot for me to wrap my head,” he said in an interview from his home.
The pandemic has been wreaking havoc in sport in general, and the Olympics in particular, for over a year. Lives and careers have been turned, redesigned and remade. But with the Games slated to start in less than three months, the space for adaptation has disappeared and some virus-related hurdles are now likely to be insurmountable.
In March, eight shooters from six countries tested positive at a qualifying competition in Budapest, Hungary, where they were quarantined and banned from competing. Earlier last month, an Indian judo team had to withdraw from a qualifying competition in Kyrgyzstan after two athletes on the team tested positive. And officials had to cancel the Pan American Olympic canoe sprint qualifier that was due to take place last month in Brazil, one of the world’s top virus hotspots. Olympic places in the region are now likely to be determined by the rankings and performance of the 2019 World Championships.
For the athletes in each case, lost training time, competition, and opportunities to earn qualifying points changed the math for the Tokyo Games. Some are still unsure how – or if – they will reserve their places at the Olympics, which are due to start on July 23.
Olympic athletes have long faced the pressure to stay healthy and avoid injury during the crucial weeks and months leading up to the Games, which for many represents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. But with the complications of the coronavirus, unlike a muscle strain or typical illness, fighting pain and fatigue is not the answer. For an infected athlete, and perhaps for healthy athletes who are considered close contacts, even contact with the virus presents an insurmountable obstacle.
In some sports, missing a single qualifying competition may not end an athlete’s hopes. In other disciplines, there is no second chance.
“Our primary concern is to create a safe environment in which athletes can compete,” said Jonathan Finnoff, Chief Medical Officer of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee. “This means that no one comes in with Covid-19, works to prevent any spread and protects communities.”
Officials in the United States have developed elaborate protocols to ensure their competitions – including the biggest trials, for high performance sports like swimming and track and field, both of which hold their qualifying competitions in June. – do not become mass-market proofs.
For now, American athletes competing in the Olympic trials must test negative for the coronavirus before going to their events, and then do so again upon arrival. The second test must take place within 72 hours of their first official activities.
The American Athletics Federation goes even further in its 10-day trials; it will take tests every other day during the competition.
“Would you like someone to test positive?” Of course not, ”said Robert Chapman, the federation’s director of sports science and medicine. “We also don’t want to see someone pull a hamstring or twist their ankle.”
While banning someone from competing after a positive test is a straightforward matter, it is more complicated to decide to eliminate someone known to have been in close contact with an infected person. To be considered close contact, an athlete must have been close to an infected person for more than 15 minutes in a 24-hour period while that person was symptomatic, or for a period of 48 hours before a test. positive or the onset of symptoms.
It doesn’t matter if the contact occurs outdoors or indoors, which means that not only workouts, but also meals and car rides can be high-stakes interactions. A health official appointed for testing will decide when to ban a competitor. Athletes will have the opportunity to appeal to a larger panel.
However, athletes who have been vaccinated essentially have a release card. The rules for close contact follow guidelines from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which state that a person who has received two weeks after receiving both doses of a Pfizer or Moderna vaccine or a single dose of the Johnson & Johnson vaccine is not considered close contact. and does not have to quarantine.
These rules differ from those currently in effect for the Games this summer. Organizers in Japan announced Wednesday that athletes considered to be close contacts will be assessed on a case-by-case basis. Protocols released by officials did not mention how a completed round of vaccinations would affect the assessment process, although athletes who have been vaccinated must follow the same rules as those who have not.
But Chapman said in recent meetings he let athletes know that the vaccine can significantly reduce their risk of elimination during trials. Olympic officials in the United States hope this serves as an incentive for all athletes who are currently worried about getting the vaccine.
“A majority of those I’ve spoken with say they’ve already received their first dose,” Chapman said.
Suriano said he hadn’t had the chance. He is only 24 years old and, in Arizona, did not meet the standards that could have allowed him to be vaccinated in time for the Olympic trials.
Specializing in labor studies at Rutgers, where he also took acting and art classes, Suriano said he followed health guidelines as closely as possible. He regularly wore a mask and tried to limit his contact with large groups, largely quarantining himself except when training. He traveled to Europe earlier this year and took first place in a competition in France that included the wrestler who won Suriano’s weight class at the United States Olympic Trials.
He said he tested negative the Sunday before testing, then trained and traveled to Texas the next day. He tested positive that evening. A second test confirmed the result.
At the weekend, as his rivals battled for places on the Olympic team, Suriano said he was experiencing symptoms of Covid-19. After his health returned and doctors cleared him for travel, he returned to New Jersey.
He has not decided if he will try to qualify for the Paris Olympics in 2024. There is little money in the fight, and there is no guarantee. He could get hurt. A better wrestler could come.
“It hurts and it changes you,” Suriano said of the experience. “I think there is a lot of beauty to come. This is exactly what comes with pain.