USA Hockey, which went to Plan B in 2018 when the NHL opted not to send players to PyeongChang, may well have to do it again for Beijing. With COVID-19 cases surging and more and more players being sidelined, the prospect of going to China and facing a lengthy quarantine should they test positive for the virus have likely Olympians thinking twice about participating.
“Unsettling,” said Edmonton Oilers captain Connor McDavid, who’s one of three provisional members of Team Canada.
The 5,000-mile trip from North America and the “closed loop” that will limit players to the Olympic Village and the arena are daunting enough. More worrisome is the uncertainty about the quarantine, which reportedly would be between three and five weeks.
That would be unacceptable to clubs that already are reluctant to let their high-priced stars go to the Games and that wouldn’t tolerate losing them for the better part of another month. The NHL, which has an escape clause if COVID causes a material disruption to the season, says that it will let the players decide.
Given all of the uncertainty, the sense is that their answer will be no-go, particularly because players won’t be paid if they miss games because of Olympic-related COVID.
“I actually find it difficult to believe that a player would want to go, understanding that he was risking being in China for an extra three weeks,” NHL commissioner Gary Bettman said after the recent Board of Governors meeting.
That leaves Plan B (the sequel), which would mean the Americans again using minor leaguers, European-based players, and collegians. That assumes, of course, that they themselves don’t test positive before the Games. China’s hapless men’s team could end up making the podium after all.
More schedule disruption
Japan’s COVID-related ban on foreign visitors continues to scramble the winter calendar. The Grand Prix figure skating final slated for Osaka this month was canceled. Now next month’s World Cup ski jumping events in Sapporo and Zao have been scrubbed, as well.
The changes aren’t limited to Japan. In short-track speedskating, next month’s European championships scheduled for Dresden and the Four Continents event in Salt Lake City, the last two international competitions before the Olympics, also have been wiped out.
Mikaela Shiffrin’s bronzes in last weekend’s two Super G ski races in St. Moritz kept her comfortably ahead of Italy’s Sofia Goggia in the World Cup Alpine overall standings going into this weekend’s races in the French resorts of Val d’Isere and Courchevel. Shiffrin, who has a pair of victories among her six podiums, leads the giant slalom table and is second in the slalom.
Switzerland’s Marco Odermatt is the men’s leader as the circuit shifts to Italy for races in Val Gardena, Alta Badia, Madonna di Campiglio, and Bormio. The only American to make a podium thus far is Travis Ganong, who placed third in the Super G at Beaver Creek.
Heading into this weekend’s World Cup cross-country event in Dresden, US skiers Rosie Brennan and Jessie Diggins (who was second in the 10K at Davos last weekend) are sitting fourth and fifth in the overall standings, behind Swedish leader Frida Karlsson.
Germany’s male bobsledders have been cashing in on home ice this month. Francesco Friedrich and Johannes Lochner have finished 1-2 in the first three World Cup two-man races, while Friedrich is 5 for 5 in the four-man after sweeping last weekend’s two events at Winterberg.
This weekend they’re back in Altenberg for the final competition before the holiday break.
Emily Sweeney’s fifth-place finish in last weekend’s World Cup luge event in Altenberg put her in excellent position to make the US Olympic team, checking off a key top-tier requirement. After being ruled out of the previous two weekends in Sochi because as an Army athlete she wasn’t allowed to compete in Russia, Sweeney fretted that she was running out of time to post qualifying points.
“All that kept going through my mind was zeroes,” she said.
After this weekend’s stop in Innsbruck there will only be two more events before the team is named next month.
Poised to succeed
If World Cup results are any guide, the US long-track speedskaters could have their best Olympic showing since 2006 in Beijing.
The Americans, who won only a sole bronze in 2018 after being blanked in 2014, figure to win five medals, four of them gold. Erin Jackson will be favored in the women’s 500 meters and Brittany Bowe is in line for gold in the 1,000 and silver in the 1,500. On the men’s side, Joey Mantia in the 1,500 and the team pursuit are favored to win.
German speedskater Claudia Pechstein, who has qualified for her eighth Olympic team at 49 in the mass start, would be the oldest woman to compete in the Winter Games.
Pechstein, who made her first team in 1992, is a product of the East German system. She became the planet’s distance queen, winning five golds, two silvers, and two bronzes. Had she not been kept out of the 2010 Games because of a blood-doping ban, Pechstein likely would have at least 10 medals on her résumé.
The Russian hockey teams, forbidden to use the word Russia or their flag on their jerseys at the Games because of their unabashed doping history, have had to get creative. They’ll use their own Olympic committee’s logo, which features a red, white, and blue flame (the flag’s colors) above the five Olympic rings. Last time in PyeongChang their jerseys were adorned only with “Olympic Athlete From Russia.” . . . Yiech Pur Biel, a former runner from South Sudan who competed in the 800 meters as part of the Refugee Team in Rio, is one of three candidates proposed for IOC membership at the upcoming session before the Beijing Games. Biel will serve as an independent individual, representing no country. He’ll be joined by Slovakia’s Danka Bartekova, a 2012 shooting medalist and former member of the IOC’s Athletes’ Commission, and by David Lappartient, who heads the international cycling federation . . . The world’s athletes may be confined to a closed loop during the Games but at least they’ll be well fed. The organizers are offering 200 items a day in the Olympic Village cafeteria, of which 70 percent will be international fare and 30 percent Chinese delicacies, such as Peking duck, moo shu pork, and lamb with scallions.
(Material from Olympic committees, sports federations, interviews, and wire services was used in this report.)