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Olympics

Coronavirus concerns prompt U.S. beach volleyball players to skip Olympic qualifier

Beach volleyball player Betsi Flint
Betsi Flint dives for a ball during an elimination round match at the AVP Hermosa Beach Open in July.
(Robert Gauthier / Los Angeles Times)

A group of U.S. beach volleyball players has withdrawn from an Olympic qualifying event in Australia next week because of concerns over the global coronavirus pandemic.

At least four two-person teams, including three-time Olympic gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings and her partner Brooke Sweat, have backed out of the FIVB Australia World Tour event, which is still scheduled to begin Wednesday at Coolangatta Beach in Gold Coast, Australia.

The decisions come at the end of a week that saw sports leagues around the world elect to suspend play. In the U.S., the NBA, NHL, MLB, MLS and NCAA, among others, postponed or outright canceled their seasons. Around the globe, including in Australia, other sporting events have been called off or held behind closed doors.

Even the indoor Volleyball Nations League was postponed until later this year to “ensure athletes can focus on looking after their health and fitness,” according to a Friday statement released by FIVB, the international governing body for both indoor and beach volleyball.

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With regards to beach volleyball, however, FIVB has decided to play all but one of its events (an April tournament in China) as scheduled for now, saying in the same statement that, “due to the nature of its event calendar, it has been agreed that at this stage the FIVB will continue to evaluate the status of each [beach volleyball] event on a case-by-case basis, working in close collaboration with the respective event organizers and national authorities.”

Stories examining the impact the spread of the coronavirus has had on the NBA, NHL, MLB, the NCAA tournament and the rest of the sports world.

But the group of U.S. players — who, because of beach volleyball’s unique organizational structure, largely decide playing schedules on their own — deemed traveling around the world amid the COVID-19 outbreak was too risky.

“Yesterday, I was just waiting, thinking FIVB beach volleyball was going to cancel this upcoming event in Australia,” said Betsi Flint, one of the six women, including her partner, Emily Day, who elected to withdraw. “I was waiting to see what people thought, if they were going to cancel. Because all the other sports were doing it.”

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When FIVB released its Friday statement announcing the Australian event — which is one of the few remaining opportunities to earn 2020 Olympic qualifying points on both the men’s and women’s sides — was still on, the American women players decided in unison they weren’t going to go, while one of the men’s teams elected to drop out as well.

Flint felt frustrated by the feeling that players were being asked to choose between their Olympic dreams and personal health concerns.

“It felt like we were brushed over,” said Flint, who posted her decision on Instagram with a caption describing the choice as: “Social Responsibility or Olympic Points?”

https://www.instagram.com/p/B9sbspiF-Nd/

“It’s been super stressful,” Flint said, speaking to The Times by phone Friday night. “My partner, Emily Day, and I, we’ve gone back and forth. Yesterday we were feeling OK about [going]. And then yesterday night we were like, ‘No way.’ Today, we’re like, maybe. Things are just happening so fast, and there’s so many unknowns.

“It’s hard because as athletes we want to play. We’ve been working really hard since the beginning of the season. So it’s really hard to resist. … We almost feel pressured to go because it’s there and there are Olympic points on the line.”

As of Friday night, four other U.S. teams (two men’s, two women’s) remained listed as participants on FIVB’s tournament website, though it was not immediately clear whether they had plans to back out as well. Australia is not one of the countries to which the CDC has recommended avoiding all nonessential travel, but it has reported sustained community spread of COVID-19.

The FIVB Olympic qualifying season runs until June 15. To qualify, teams must finish in the top 15 of the FIVB Olympic qualification rankings. Also, Olympic rules stipulate that only two teams per country may qualify.

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Of the Americans who are deciding to stay home, only Walsh-Jennings and Sweat are in a qualifying spot.

“We have the option” whether to play or not, Flint said. “We’re one of the only sports, probably. So it’s really hard to resist and say no, but we think it’s the right choice.”


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