The ‘crazy’ inside story of how the Wuhan Olympic boxing qualifier almost went on

The first warning shots were fired by a resident travel agent. By a mother who grieves from afar. And also by a cleaner in Canberra.

‘It is funny. We were at the Australian Institute of Sport,” recalls lightweight boxer Harry Garside. This is in November, December (2019) and one of the cleaners was actually Chinese. She said, “Where are you going?” I said Wuhan and she said, “Ooh…there’s a big, big problem there with disease.”

Garside, getting ready to start the long trek to Tokyo, shrugged. “I didn’t know what she was talking about,” he adds. “I should have listened… we just dodged the bullet.” Unfortunately, no one escaped the shrapnel.

Olympic boxer Harry Garside revealed he had been warned about Covid-19 in Wuhan by a cleaner

Almost 17 months ago, the opening qualifier for boxing for the 2020 Olympics was scheduled for China. Between February 3 and 14, teams from Asia, Australia and New Zealand would descend to Wuhan.

Fighters and organizers of the IOC Boxing Task Force were days away from boarding. At the time, the exact details were vague, but reports claimed that nine people had died from a new respiratory disease. There were about 400 confirmed cases of the flu-like virus and Wuhan was ground zero.

“We weren’t sure how concerned to be,” recalls Professor Mike Loosemore, who works at GB Boxing and was appointed medical chief of the Task Force.

“I looked at the advice of the State Department and the Commonwealth … they didn’t stop anyone from traveling to Wuhan.” The IOC also didn’t say they had to cancel. So while Loosemore’s family was getting “excited,” he remained excited by a first visit to the sprawling city.

“Everyone says it’s okay,” he told them. And then, on January 22, the problems increased. The Chinese authorities urged Wuhan residents to stay put — and outsiders to stay out. The locals were also told to avoid crowds. Within hours, local organizers canceled the boxing event; an Olympic football qualifier was also moved from Wuhan to Nanjing.

Garside was set to fight in Wuhan before the Covid 2020 Tokyo qualifier.  got cancelled

Garside was set to fight in Wuhan before the Covid 2020 Tokyo qualifier. got cancelled

“I think both organizations looked at each other,” Loosemore recalls. “If one went, the other would have been obliged to go.” This is how the first dominoes tumbled. And yet the Olympic leaders seemed unperturbed. “It’s not considered as dangerous as the SARS epidemic,” their website said.

SARS killed less than 800 people. Four million Covid deaths later, the Olympics are underway, albeit on the brink of chaos. Garside is lucky – he has reached Japan. On Saturday he will compete for a spot in the quarterfinals; others saw their dreams delayed — or interrupted — by the chaos of the coronavirus.

After the Wuhan qualifier fell, the world quickly went silent. Late on January 22, China confirmed that the death toll had nearly doubled in one day. A week later, the World Health Organization declared a global emergency.

On February 23, Italy began to go into lockdown. That was when Garside started counting his blessings. That was also around the time the Games themselves began to waver. “I’m a big history geek and you hear about the Spanish flu… it’s almost mythical,” Garside says. “But it really happened.”

He had been warned – and not just by the cleaner. As he prepared to leave for Wuhan, Garside’s mother Kate began to worry. “She didn’t say, ‘Don’t go.’ She knows I’m a big boy and even if she had, I probably would,” he says. “(But) she sent me a few articles.”

Due to Covid, Garside and other athletes had to wait an extra 12 months to go to Tokyo

Due to Covid, Garside and other athletes had to wait an extra 12 months to go to Tokyo

Boxing New Zealand chairman Keith Walker was soon pulled out of the cold as well. Their nine boxers had gone to Thailand to prepare without any inclination or knowledge, he says. “The travel agent I’m dealing with here … she pointed it out to me,” Walker reveals.

“She saw a news report about it and said, ‘Keith, we’re in trouble.’ So Walker contacted the New Zealand Olympic Committee. “All the clues from there were, ‘No, it’s fine, WHO said there’s no need to cancel flights’… we also got funny letters from NZOC doctors, saying nothing was wrong. ‘

‘Crazy things’, he looks back. Understandable perhaps, but still. After all, China did not report its first Covid death until January 11. “Looking back now, I’m pretty thankful we didn’t (go),” says Garside. But then? “If it was on, the reality is I was still gone,” he admits.

“I have traveled to many countries to box… we get to see the culture and see how people live. That’s the best part.’ Loosemore struggled in the same way. “I wouldn’t have dropped out when the advice was that you could still travel to Wuhan,” he says. ‘That would have been wrong. I mean… the right thing on one level – my personal level – but the wrong thing for the organization.”

That decision was eventually taken out of their hands. But still no one foresaw lasting tremors. “I thought it would just pass,” Garside says. Australia’s head coach Kevin Smith simply shifted his focus to helping fighters ‘tread water’ until the fog lifted.

Garside was one of the lucky ones to reach Tokyo and will fight for a place in the quarters

Garside was one of the lucky ones to reach Tokyo and will fight for a place in the quarters

Smith is a Scouser and at home his mother Phyllis said to him, “I’m really glad you didn’t go.” They thought “the dangers were over,” he says. Meanwhile, for Walker, one of the “burning problems” was recovering money their self-funded fighters had spent on flights and accommodation.

Even the very experienced Loosemore saw little reason to panic. “The feeling was that it would be isolated to Wuhan and we could easily move the tournament to another place,” he says. They did, but the coronavirus soon began to swallow everything up. Between Wuhan and these rearranged games? Little more than scorched earth.

“We thought two, three, four weeks of lockdown max and we’d be out again,” Loosemore noted. “I don’t think anyone was reckless… I think the human condition is that you’re always optimistic about these things. You don’t think you’re going to die, or this will affect you. Until it happens.’

Boxing New Zealand paid a particularly high price. Of their nine-man team for Wuhan, only David Nyika qualified for Tokyo and his preparations were severely hampered by travel restrictions. Garside has had better luck. Even after ignoring his mother – and that cleaning lady.

“I’m definitely excited to go to Canberra and have a chat with her,” he says. “And maybe one day I’ll go to Wuhan to check it out—if it’s safe.”