U.S. athletes weigh competing vs. staying safe: ‘It’s hard not to go’

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Coronavirus-covid-19-3/15/2020AVP Hermosa 2019-Betsi Flint
Betsi Flint on the FIVB event in Australia: "This this shouldn’t count for Olympic qualification points because we don’t feel safe."/Mark Rigney photography

Editor’s note: Hours after this story posted, the FIVB announced that the Coolangatta, Australia three-star has been postponed. 

They were in, they were out. They were back in, and then, just hours before Betsi Flint and Emily Day were scheduled to board a plane bound for Australia, they were out again. They would not be competing in the upcoming Coolangatta three-star. They were staying home.

“It’s definitely been a stressful 24, 48 hours,” Flint said. “We had our flight last night. It was supposed to be at 11 p.m. so we were waiting as long as we could, thinking the FIVB was eventually going to step in and say ‘No tournament, let’s postpone’ and they never did, and that was really disappointing.

“We got on a call with some other USA athletes and I was happy to hear they were feeling the same way I was, because I was like ‘Am I the only one feeling this way?’ I felt really pressured to go, and there was a tournament on the line and we all work so hard and we want to compete. It’s hard not to go. The NCAA girls have no option to play. It’s very cool that I have the option to play but is it the right choice?”

That is the very question that is almost exclusive to beach volleyball players at this point. While most major sporting leagues have postponed their seasons indefinitely — MLB, NBA, PGA Tour, NCAA — the FIVB is making its decisions on a tournament by tournament basis. It leaves the players with the decision: Should I stay home, or run the risk of traveling during the coronavirus pandemic, where any number of adverse consequences could come as a result: contracting the virus, becoming a carrier of the virus, quarantined in a foreign country, among others.

“It has been decided that, due to the nature of the event calendar, each event will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis,” FIVB president Ary Graca said in a statement. Indoors, the FIVB has decided to postpone the Volleyball Nations League until after the Tokyo Olympics this summer. Beach has had no such decision.

“I’m definitely not alone in being annoyed at the FIVB for basically punting it, saying ‘Hey, we’re looking out for the safety of all of our athletes, except beach. They can do whatever they want,’” said Theo Brunner who, like Flint and Day, dropped out of Coolangatta at the last minute. “Obviously, the promoters don’t want to cancel their individual events.”

Like Flint, and every other athlete who dropped out of Coolangatta, the decision came after much back and forth. On the one hand, the tournament, watered down after a number of dropouts, would be easier to win than most three stars. It would be a boost in points, enough, potentially, to get Brunner back onto the USA Volleyball stipend.

On the other hand, was it worth it?

“I’ve been working my ass off and I feel really good,” Brunner said. “I feel like I could do really well in the tournament and I really want to go. It’s just one of those situations where I need to listen to my brain, not my heart. My heart really wants to go, but my brain is like, ‘This is the right decision.’”

For those in the Olympic race, the decision was that much more difficult, as the stakes were exponentially higher. Prior to the weekend, the American women’s teams who had signed up jumped on a conference call, deciding the best course of action. If everyone decided not to go, then nobody would be getting an advantage. It would be a unified decision. Unanimity wasn’t met, however, and so Kelley Larsen and Emily Stockman, Sarah Sponcil and Kelly Claes, and Sara Hughes and Lauren Fendrick remain in the field. Flint and Day, and Kerri Walsh Jennings and Brooke Sweat opted to stay home.

“Now we’re just writing letters to the beach volleyball players committee, saying this shouldn’t count for Olympic qualification points because we don’t feel safe,” Flint said. “There’s a reason why we’re supposed to be isolating so we don’t make it worse. The [FIVB] just disregards that. Beach volleyball is just ‘keep doing what you’re doing.’

“It’s a hard situation but I feel like us as athletes shouldn’t be put in this situation. Someone should be stepping up and making the call.”

For now, the call is up to individual athletes and their respective federations. Norway released a statement that “We don’t want to contribute to further spread the coronavirus and therefore we have decided to stay at home, as the Norwegian government advised us to do. Hendrik Mol and Mathias Bernsten are already in Australia and will follow the advice of local authorities.”

It is entirely possible that, soon enough, there will be no decisions to make at all, as events continue to be postponed or cancelled. On Saturday afternoon, the FIVB announced the postponement of the Cancun four-star in two weeks. The next event after Coolangatta that is at least three stars is Jurmala, Latvia (three-star) and Itapema, Brazil (four-star) on May 6-10.

“Although as advised the risk level is currently low in Mexico, there are international travel limitations in different parts of the world that impact the travels of the participants,” the FIVB wrote in a statement following the Cancun postponement. “The health and well-being of athletes, officials and fans is the FIVB’s top priority, and the mutual decision to postpone the event was made in the best interests of all parties.”

The FIVB is currently in discussions with the International Olympic Committee on potentially revising the Olympic qualification process.

“The FIVB expresses its deepest sympathy and solidarity to those affected by the outbreak,” it wrote. “We will continue to carefully monitor the situation in full cooperation with the World Health Organisation and other international and national health and sports authorities.”

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