ROME — The high-altitude training camp in the Alps was supposed to represent ideal preparation for the Tokyo Olympics.
Instead, a large portion of the Italian swimming team — 13 elite athletes — has been locked in tiny hotel rooms for nearly two weeks with the coronavirus.
Meals are left on trays outside their doors, and the athletes are not permitted to leave.
“I don’t know exactly what prisoners’ lives are like, but we are confined,” Gabriele Detti, a gold medal contender in both the 400- and 800-meter freestyle, said in a telephone interview with The Associated Press. “It’s a bit like home arrest.”
Italian swimmers have been traveling to Livigno, which is located near the Swiss border at an altitude of nearly 6,000 feet, for years to acquire a performance boost for their muscles through the addition of more red blood cells.
Now, though, the question is what effect remaining virtually immobile for so long at high altitude will have on their fine-tuned bodies.
“I’m afraid that everyone could lose muscle mass,” said Stefano Morini, one of three of the team’s staff members to also test positive and be put in quarantine. “When we restart, we’ll have to start all over like it’s an entirely new season.”
The hotel rooms are so small that the most the athletes can do is some basic floor exercises.
“If we put an exercise bike inside, then we would have to get out just to make room,” said Morini, who is also Detti’s uncle. “We gave them some exercises to do, and some of the athletes have told us they are doing them. But we can’t go in to check. I have to talk to them by phone.”
Simona Quadarella, a world champion like Detti, is also among those isolated inside the Hotel Primola.
The others are Federico Burdisso, Martina Rita Caramignoli, Marco De Tullio, Stefano Di Cola, Sara Gailli, Edoardo Giorgetti, Matteo Lamberti, Alessio Proietti Colonna and Mattia Zuin. Simone Sabbioni and Alice Mizzau, two more Italian swimmers from a different club, are quarantined in another hotel.
All of the swimmers tested negative when the training camp began on Oct. 11. Then Sabbioni and Mizzau started feeling sick and Giorgetti came down with a bad case of diarrhea, so new tests were ordered for the entire team.
They tested positive again in the latest round of tests Thursday, although they are now all asymptomatic.
Olympic champion Federica Pellegrini, who was not in Livigno, also had the virus for two weeks before finally testing negative Thursday.
“It’s part of the game,” Detti said. “So many people are getting it, it’s almost more of a surprise not to get it.”
Italy hit another record of confirmed new cases of COVID-19 on Thursday, approaching 27,000, a jump of nearly 2,000 in one day. The first Western country engulfed by the pandemic, Italy’s death toll of 37,700 remains second in Europe behind Britain.
“Fortunately I’m feeling fine and I don’t have any symptoms, but it’s starting to drag on,” Detti said. “On the other hand, it’s the right thing to do, because we present a danger to the healthy people outside.”
The problem is that the clock is ticking for the Tokyo Games, which were already postponed by a year because of the pandemic and are now scheduled to start July 23, 2021.
“If this all ends by the middle of next month and we can get back in the water fairly soon, then we’ll just train straight through to July and I don’t think we’ll be affected all that much,” Morini said. “But it all depends on what effect this has on their bodies and their lungs and how much muscle mass they lose. … It’s a big blow.”
Detti, who won gold in the 800 free at the 2017 worlds after collecting bronzes in the 400 and 1,500 free at the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics, remained optimistic that the Tokyo Games will be held and wasn’t overly concerned about losing too much training time.
He appealed to the IOC and Japanese organizers to set up a clear and efficient protocol for holding the Games.
“I hope that if they do decide to hold it that they know how to organize it,” the swimmer said. “Once they say they’re going forward with it should mean they know how to organize everything. We’re counting on that.”
In the meantime, Detti has been patting himself on the back for deciding to enroll in an online university class before traveling to Livigno. Detti is spending his mornings studying, then he performs his floor exercises before relaxing in the afternoon, staring out at the snow-covered landscape.
“There’s three of us on this floor. Every now and then we step out onto the balcony and we say hello to each other, just to see each other’s faces,” Detti said. “Somehow, the time passes.”