Coronavirus sparks urgent Aussie Olympic U-turn
The rapid spread of the deadly coronavirus has forced Australia's Olympic women's water polo squad to shift their planning training camp in Europe because it was too close to the Italian epicentre where at least seven people have died.
It's the first case of an Australian team having to change their Tokyo Olympic preparations for an event outside of Asia and will raise fresh fears that the biggest sports event in the world could be under threat later this year if there's a full-scale pandemic.
The Stingers' squad - which includes the daughters of Rugby World Cup winner Phil Kearns and NRL legend Daryl Halliagn - was due to spend a week in Italy then a week in Hungary as part of a training camp that is critical to the squad's Olympic preparations.
But with northern Italy now in virtual lockdown amid fears that international authorities are losing the battle to contain the virus, the Stingers have been ordered to stay overnight in Dubai instead of flying on to Italy so the entire camp can be switched to Hungary, where there have been no reported cases yet of coronavirus.
"We are taking necessary precautions to minimise disruption for our squad's preparations 150 days out from the Olympic Games, however we are also very conscious of the health and well being of our players and staff," Water Polo Australia acting CEO Richard McInnes told The Daily Telegraph.
"While the risk of contracting the coronavirus where the squad was due to train in Italy was considered low, the speed with which the situation is changing across multiple countries, we wanted to minimise the risk of our squad being quarantined."
The Stingers' Italian base camp in Ostia is near the Italian capital Rome, about six hours south of Lombardy and Veneto, the Italian regions where most of the cases have occurred.
Italian authorities have already shut schools and tourist attractions in the country's north and the biggest fear for WPA was that if the outbreak spreads out of control, the Australian squad could be left stranded in quarantine if other European countries close their borders to anyone who has been in Italy.
WPA has picked a squad of 15 players, including Tilly Kearns and Bronte Halligan for the two week tour, where they will train alongside the Hungarian and Canadian national teams.
The final 13-player Australian team for Tokyo will be finalised in May but the Stingers are looming as one of the favourites to win gold after recently winning a match against the highly favoured United States.
Australia hasn't won Olympic gold in water polo since 2000 but the Stingers won bronze at last year's world championships in South Korea - which ended tragically.
The Stingers were out celebrating after beating Hungary 10-9 to win the bronze medal when they were involved in a terrifying fatal nightclub incident.
They were lucky to escape with their lives after they were dancing on a balcony that collapsed and killed two party goers at the seven-story Coyote Ugly nightclub. None of the Australians were injured but players from at least four other teams were hurt.