Water polo returns six months before Tokyo Olympics

Trieste (Italy) (AFP) –


Six months before the Tokyo Olympics, water polo returns after almost a year bereft of international competition with eight nations battling in Trieste this week for the two remaining women's berths in Japan.

Flags, anthems and matches are all behind closed doors, with social distancing and compulsory masks outside the pool in the Italian port city.

A foretaste of what possibly awaits athletes during this pandemic era at the Summer Games in Japan from July 23 to August 11.

"It's strange, not even being able to give a hand check (fist to fist) with rivals at the end of the match, not seeing anybody, but that's how it is. It has become normal," Greece's Christina Tsoukala told AFP, after getting seven goals past rivals Kazakhstan.

"Returning? It's hard! But we all wanted to start again after almost a year without an international match, so it's good, we're happy."

For ex-player Attila Biro, now coach of the formidable Hungarians, "it's a really strange atmosphere," with their domestic league playing in front of fans.

"I've never played like this. In Hungary we played this autumn in front of fans," said Biro.

"Even if it's easier for the trainers to speak with players, I prefer the noise of the crowd."

Two nations are fighting to join already qualified Australia, Canada, China, South Africa, Spain, Russia, the United States and Japan.

Italy, the 2016 Rio Games runners-up, are favourites, along with Hungary, the Netherlands and Greece, in the tournament which had been scheduled for last May.

- Fighting for the Games -

In Italy swimming pools and gymnasiums remain closed to the public.

"We're lucky," said France captain Geraldine Mahieu.

"Being high-level athletes, we have this possibility of being able to do something that could be considered non-essential."

Mahieu played more than her teammates in 2020 with her Hungarian team Dunaujvaros resuming their championship in July.

For the French, missing several players and early losers to hosts Italy, it will be a battle to qualify, with the focus more towards the 2024 Paris Olympics.

In a competition "bubble" in north-eastern Italy, players and coaches are confined to the hotel and to the swimming pool.

Much to the chagrin of the Kazaks whose coach finds it "psychologically" stressful not being allowed to wander the streets to breath in the air of the port city.

But the Tokyo Games come at this price.

"We spend our lives fighting for them, it's a major event for all athletes," said Italy's Roberta Bianconi, unable to imagine a new postponement or cancellation.

"It would be a real blow, but obviously, if it were, it would mean that the overall situation is really difficult."

Hungarian coach Biro added: "We obviously want there to be supporters in Tokyo, but I think they have to take place, even without."

Without supporters, but with vaccines for those who will go to Tokyo.

"It's undoubtedly the only solution to be able to play the Games serenely, if we qualify," added Bianconi.