Serious Olympic-qualification implications as FIVB postpones Yangzhou 4-star

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World Championships 2019 July 3-Kelley Larsen
Kelley Larsen, straining to reach a net serve last July 4, and partner Emily Stockman have one less shot at picking up FIVB points/Mark Rigney photography

The FIVB beach volleyball events with major Olympic implications have not yet begun in the 2020 season, and yet the race to Tokyo is already two events shorter.

On February 5, the FIVB announced that the Singapore four-star, scheduled for April 15-19, had been cancelled. And now, because of the coronavirus, the FIVB announced Monday the postponement of the Yangzhou four-star scheduled for April 22-26.

No specific date was set but the release did state that the event will not be scheduled until after the Tokyo Olympics.

“The FIVB expresses its deepest sympathy and solidarity to the whole volleyball community in China, following the impact the coronavirus outbreak has had on the country, its people and the millions of passionate volleyball players and fans,” the FIVB wrote in a statement. “We understand that China is taking all necessary measures to contain the outbreak, so that it can reassume its rightful place on the world volleyball stage as soon as possible.

“The health and wellbeing of our athletes, officials and fans is our number one priority and so it was mutually decided that postponing the event to a later date was in the best interests of everyone involved. The FIVB will continue to carefully monitor the ongoing coronavirus outbreak, and will remain in regular consultation with Chinese authorities as well as global authorities, such as the World Health Organization, to ensure that we always have the very latest information.”

The outbreak of the coronavirus began in Wuhan, China, and has affected more than 66,000 people. A number of airlines have stopped flying into China altogether. The FIVB’s move to cancel or postpone the events is obviously well-intended, as the safety of the athletes is of the utmost importance, but it does have severe Olympic implications.

With at least two fewer events on the schedule before Tokyo’s qualification deadline, it places added urgency on the nine events remaining that are three-stars and above, and even that number is likely to change. The FIVB has not made any official announcement regarding the Siming four-star, scheduled for April 29-May 3, or the Jinjiang three-star on May 13-17, but at the moment they certainly could be labeled as tenuous.

The reactions of the players have been understandably mixed. Those currently in the driver’s seat in regards to Olympic qualification have two — at least — fewer events to fend off any contenders, and there are two fewer trips to China to take. Those who are attempting to fight their way into the top two spots view it as a missed opportunity.

“I agree that the event should be postponed with all that is going on with the coronavirus but the fact that it’s going to be after the Olympics is very frustrating,” said Emily Stockman, who with Kelley Larsen is fourth in the USA race for two spots, a little less than 900 points behind second-ranked Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat. “Already having Singapore canceled and now this.”

China presents a fascinating dichotomy for beach volleyball players. While it is almost unanimously viewed as the most difficult place to travel and the toughest from which to recover, it also provides the most events and prize money of any single country. This season, China was initially scheduled to play host to six events, and in 2019, it was the host for nine.

“I’m kind of relieved,” admitted Tri Bourne, who with Trevor Crabb comprise the second-ranked USA team in the men’s Olympic race. “Not that we have one less event to play but that we don’t have to deal with the extra stress of going to China right now.”

The next event, then, with Olympic points on the line, will be the Coolangatta (Australia) three-star on March 18-22.

“We have to adapt and roll with the punches and make the best out of the FIVB tournaments that are happening,” Larsen said.

Jordan Cheng, who coaches the third-ranked USA team of Kelly Claes and Sarah Sponcil, agreed.

“Less tournaments can also bring mixed feelings,” Cheng said. “It means less opportunities and less room for error. But it also means you’ve got to do well at the tournaments you play in and that holds true for every team pursuing the Olympics.”

He admitted that having to go to China for three tournaments in a row is tough on anyone.

“The other side of it is being bummed about not getting to go to China because there are opportunities for strong finishes/points, and lots of teams capitalize on tournaments like those in China, where not as many of the top teams play so it could be considered a great opportunity to get points,” Cheng said.

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