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Sports News

Strict COVID rules keep Hong Kong's elite swimmers dry and restless

HONG KONG (Reuters) - Coronavirus restrictions on pools and beaches in Hong Kong have left thousands of competitive swimmers out of the water and struggling to stay fit, heralding a downturn for one of the city’s favourite sports at an elite level.

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The Chinese special administrative region re-opened all sports facilities on Friday amid a drop in coronavirus cases but not swimming pools, which have been closed for over six months.

Public beaches remain cordoned off with blockades and police standing guard to prevent anyone accessing the ocean.

This has puzzled many as there have been no cases of coronavirus transmitted via swimming in Hong Kong and pools have opened in other countries such as Britain and Australia where wider community transmission has been much higher.

Hong Kong’s Amateur Swimming Association (HKASA) said the pool closures would seriously affect the training system that develops elite swimmers.

“That will bring catastrophic effect to our elite swimmers in a few years’ time,” it said in an email.

“It will deprive the HKASA of government funding and support for our swimmers, which is a vicious cycle that will take years to unwind.”

Swimming is one of the most popular sports in the former British colony of 7.5 million people and accounts for the bulk of its Olympic athletes. There are some 10,000 competitive swimmers with millions doing the sport for leisure, the association said.

The city’s government said it was not able to open pools due to what it said was a higher risk of infection. It did not give further details for its reasoning.

Rare exceptions have been made for a handful of professional swimmers that can train at the city’s sport institute, provided they live on the premises.

Top Olympian Siobhan Haughey said she has been in lockdown at the institute for nearly 50 days. Living in her own room, her stay has been comfortable with meals provided by a canteen on site.

“I’m grateful that we get to train here but I think we’re all ready to be let out,” she said.

Head swim coach at the institute, Chen Jianhong, said it was especially miserable for amateur athletes who have no pool access.

“When they come back to training, they will find that their ability is lost, and their confidence will be greatly affected,” he said.

The closures have left over 6,000 registered swim coaches without work and swim clubs facing gaping losses.

“We have been running a loss since January, sort of getting to the end of the line here,” said Henry Wright, Head of Swimming at Harry Wright International which has over 3,000 swimmers and 40 staff. “It’s just brutal.”

Reporting by Farah Master; Editing by Sam Holmes

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