Feature23 Jul 2020

Athletes rely on resourcefulness as coronavirus continues to impact South American athletics


Race walker Andres Chocho of Ecuador (© AFP/Getty Images)

The Covid-19 pandemic is hitting every corner of the world and South America is no exception. All activities in the region have been virtually paralyzed since the last event was held in Bragança Paulista, Brazil on 14 March. There, Darlan Romani, the area record holder in the shot put, the fourth place finisher at the 2019 World Championships and one of South America’s best athletes, reached 21.52m.

In an interview with World Athletics earlier this week, Hélio Marinho Gesta de Melo, President of the South American Confederation ConSudAtle admits that the pandemic's "impact in our region has been really, really hard”.

“Our calendar has been halted and we have no idea when we'll be back."

Argentina is one country that hasn’t suffered an extreme number of casualties. The government implemented a very strict confinement in mid-March, which provided no options, even to athletes.

“I had a very difficult time at the lockdown. This situation was extremely stressful for me,” said Argentine Belén Casetta, 25, the Area record holder in the 3000m steeplechase (9:25.99) and 2017 World Championships finalist. Casetta returned home to her native Mar del Plata in March, after a training period in Kenya.


Argentina's steeplechase specialist Belén Casetta winning the 2019 Pan-American Games title


“In the past few weeks the Argentine sports authorities authorised a limited number of athletes with Olympic qualification or close to obtain it, to resume training. It was the best thing that happened to me in these months. The Province of Tucumán allowed me to come over. I followed all possible protocols and now I am training very well, in different weather and in much better conditions”, said Casetta, speaking from Tafí del Valle, at 2000m of elevation.

“I am a person who is always moving around, even when I am injured,” she added. “I never stop. So, this was very challenging. Thankfully, my family and the authorities and sponsors never stopped supporting me.

Colombia has seen a recent rise in Covid-19 cases. Lorena Arenas, who was sixth in the 20km race walk at last year’s World Championships, was living and training in Bogotá when the emergency was declared. Two months ago, Arenas was able to move back to Medellín to rejoin her family.

“I accepted the lockdown and the situation itself with tranquility, since this is a global issue,” said the 26-year-old said, who has also been on the mend from some injuries that hit her late last year. “I am training at home, since we have a very strict confinement. My training methods are a bicycle placed on a roller and I also have a treadmill that I had to rent, where I walk and run. I also do some weights and physical training. I am waiting to be able to resume normal training soon.”


Colombian race walker Sandra Arenas winning the 2019 Pan-American Games title


But she doesn’t know when she will compete next. “We only know the date of the race at the Olympic Games. I guess we will decide later what the next steps will be.”

A different reality in Uruguay

Uruguay moved swiftly in March to combat the pandemic, instituting social distancing, testing and contact tracing from the outset. As a result, the country has reported just over 1100 cases and suffered just 34 deaths.

“Since things have been very much under control in Uruguay because we didn’t have many cases, we didn’t have to face a lockdown and people acted in a very responsible way,” said Maria Pia Fernandez, the reigning South American 1500m champion and national record holder at 1500m (4:09.45) and 3000m (9:12.80). “We didn’t have a large number of casualties and people infected, so were able to continue our training - cautiously initially, mostly at home, and then going outdoors again, even using the track.”, explains the 25 year old said Fernández from Montevideo.


Uruguayan middle distance runner Maria Pia Fernandez


“2019 was a positive year for me,” the 25-year-old from Montevideo continued. “I was able to improve and add very important points towards the World Ranking. I felt everything was going well for me, heading to the Olympic Games, but we all understand the reasons for the postponement, which are very sensible and wise, but came as a big surprise to me. Personally it will be difficult to push everything one year forward without mayor competitions, but we all know how unstable things are all over the world. We hope we will resume competitions locally in September and our goal, with my coach, is to head to Europe and take part in the indoor season.”

The break wasn’t all for naught. Fernandez was able to pick up a few courses towards her degree in physical therapy.

Situation improving in Ecuador

Race walking couple Andres Chocho and Erica de Sena have suffered a different scenario in Cuenca, Ecuador, which was hit hard at the beginning of the lockdown. Ecuadorian Chocho, 36, is the South American record holder in the 50km race walking (3:42:57), the 2015 Pan-American Games champion and finalist at the 2011 and 2015 World Championships. Brazilian de Sena, 35, is the South American record holder in the 20km race walk (1:26:59), with fourth place finishes at the last two World Championships.

“I had very difficult moments,” de Sena said. “There were days where I would start crying for no apparent reason.” For ten weeks the couple’s training was limited to a treadmill and a stationary bicycle. Strength sessions were done without weights. “That made our training harder than usual.”


Brazilian race walker Erica De Sena


“Both of us had completed a great pre-season base training and we were disappointed that the Olympic Games were postponed,” Chocho added, “but we totally understand the circumstances. However, we already have a new date and we will have enough time to prepare for that. Erica is already qualified in her event. I am also qualified at 20km and I need to qualify for the 50km. We will try to stay healthy, once again do a good base and then hope to be ready when competitions resume in 2021. Luckily in the past few weeks we have been able to train outdoors again. We try to go to places that aren’t very crowded.”

Difficult times in Brazil

The same isn’t true in Brazil, currently second in the world in the number of cases and deaths.

“The beginning of the confinement was very difficult for me, since I am very active,” said Mateus de Sá, a 24-year-old triple jumper who sailed to silver at the 2019 World University Games. “I had to use my time in different ways. I connected with friends through social media, I watched several films and read a lot.”


Brazilian triple jumper Mateus de Sá


“Things are very difficult here in São Paulo because this is the hardest hit city in the country,” he continued. “The health crisis brought several limitations and we don’t have a track to train. We are training in parks, trying to adapt to the circumstances.” He’s grateful to his club EC Pinheiros and his coaches, Nélio and Tânia Moura, who have maintained their support.

“Being deprived of what I love to do, which is athletics, brought fear and uncertainty,” he said. “I was used to focusing on my trainings, knowing what type of workout I had to do every day. Not having that has been very difficult.

“Apparently the worst moment in São Paulo already passed and things can get better. The next step will come when the tracks are open again and when we can have a calendar of competitions. Once we see that competitions are close to resuming, we will start focusing on achieving the qualification for the Olympic Games,” said de Sá, who is hoping that the crisis will bring him more resilience and mental strength.

“I was lucky not to have anyone I know getting sick. Yet, one also learns to value people, moments, talks with family and friends, and how important certain relationships are. The human being needs to have relationships. We need hugs and to be close to our loved ones.”

Eduardo Biscayart for World Athletics