Mona Pretorius fears coronavirus-related travel restrictions will prevent her from qualifying for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games ©Mona Pretorius

A South African weightlifter’s chance of realising a lifelong dream of competing at the Olympic Games could be thwarted by coronavirus-related travel restrictions.

The plight of Mona Pretorius highlights the difficulties faced by athletes who cannot travel to the African Championships due to be held in Madagascar in three weeks’ time.

At least one other African hopeful for the rearranged Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, Roilya Ranaivosoa of Mauritius, is believed to be unable to travel.

The news from Pretorius' travel agent is that flights to Madagascar are banned from 44 countries, six of them from Africa, including South Africa.

Another is Tunisia, one of Africa’s leading weightlifting nations, which is using the one flight a week from Paris to make it to Madagascar on time for the Championships, scheduled from April 2 to 7.

"I don’t see how the Madagascar competition can go ahead because so many athletes can’t go," said Pretorius, 32, who is well placed to qualify in the women’s under-64 kilograms category.

"I feel like my Olympic dream is at risk, and I’m not the only one in this position.

"The decision not to go ahead with the African Championships is obviously not in the interests of athletes.

"It’s not just the nations that have banned flights, it’s the quarantine, the health risk, and the cost."

Even if she could get a flight it would cost Pretorius more than $6,000 (£4,300/€5,000) of her own money, as she is self-funded.

The European, Pan American and Asian Championships are due to go ahead as planned next month but the Oceania Championships have been postponed until September and now the African Championships will go ahead without everybody there.

When insidethegames sent messages to Khaled Mehalhel, President of the Weightlifting Federation of Africa (WFA), to ask for an entry list and an update on plans for Madagascar there was no reply.

Mahmoud Mahgoub, a WFA Executive Board member from Egypt, said, "We already changed the host country from Mauritius to Madagascar (because of COVID).

"Nobody knows what will happen tomorrow but we keep going to organise the championships."

Mona Pretorius, right, is a Commonwealth Games bronze medallist ©Getty Images
Mona Pretorius, right, is a Commonwealth Games bronze medallist ©Getty Images

Seán Brown, an Irish national champion, withdrew from the European Championships, due to start in Moscow on April 3, for similar reasons to Pretorius.

He said on social media that "many other athletes from various countries have taken their names off the list too - it’s heartbreaking and frustrating to see".

Qualifying points earned from Continental Championships are rated "gold" level by the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF), which will have to find a way of making the disrupted qualifying system fair for all.

There could be better news on the way for athletes.

Talks on finding a solution were held at a meeting on Thursday and Sarah Davies, chair of the IWF Athletes' Commission, said, "I think we have a good plan - we just need it approved now."

The next step is in the hands of the IWF Executive Board, which will present a proposal to the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Pretorius won a Commonwealth Games bronze medal in 2018.

She was a multiple champion in karate before taking up weightlifting and has lived in the United States and Romania - where her husband was strength and conditioning coach for the national rugby team - before moving to his native New Zealand from where she runs an online coaching business.

"Competing at the Olympic Games has been my dream for my whole life," she said.

"In the past, when it was a team-based qualifying system, there was no chance for most African countries.

"Now it’s individual this is the only time I’ve had a real chance to qualify but I can’t go to my own Continental Championships.

"It’s all so unclear."

Before the competition starts in Madagascar, the WFA elections will be held.

Mahgoub, who has overseen Egyptian weightlifting during troubled times of doping scandals and suspensions, but also of success at the Olympic Games, is one of three candidates for the Presidency.

The others are the current president Mehalhel of Libya, who is favourite to win a third term, and the Tunisian Fathi Masmoudi.

Seán Brown is another athlete unable to compete at the Continental Championships because of coronavirus restrictions ©Facebook
Seán Brown is another athlete unable to compete at the Continental Championships because of coronavirus restrictions ©Facebook

Mahgoub’s nominations from Egypt have caused a stir within the sport according to the media in Cairo, because the national weightlifting body is currently suspended not just by the International Weightlifting Federation but by its own Sports Ministry.

One local news report said there was "a state of anger within the Egyptian weightlifting family" at the presence of Mahgoub among the candidates because "he was one of the reasons for the suspension of the Egyptian federation".

The Egyptian Weightlifting Federation was suspended for two years by the IWF in September 2019 as a result of seven doping cases, including five teenagers, at a training camp before the African Youth and Junior Championships in December 2016.

It was also suspended domestically, and is being run by an interim committee overseen by Mahgoub until after the Tokyo Olympics, from which Egypt is banned.

Mahgoub said the criticism was unfair and that Egypt’s four candidates for WFA positions had good credentials.

Both he and Adham Mohamed, standing for secretary general, had competed at the Olympic Games.

Ahmed Hassan of the Coaching and Research Committee has a masters degree in weightlifting and is a physical education lecturer, Mahgoub said, and Mohamed Gouda of the Medical Committee is a doctor and member of the African Medical Committee.

Gouda’s critics pointed out that he had no background in weightlifting whatsoever.