(Reuters) - Gold medal favourites Belgium fear they might have lost some of the advantage they held over their rivals for the Olympic men's hockey title after the postponement of the Tokyo Games and the novel coronavirus-induced sporting hiatus.
Coach Shane McLeod, who led Belgium to silver in Rio de Janeiro four years ago and then a World Cup title in 2018, believes the playing field is now level again with the Games postponed by a year. But he insists it only served to heighten the challenge for him and his players.
"I was very happy with how we had been going," he said, with Belgium having secured qualification by winning last year’s EuroHockey Nations Championship while their rivals had to play another qualifying tournament in order to book a berth to Japan.
"We bought ourselves eight weeks that other nations didn't have, so while we were working on individual aspects of our game, other countries were still needing to qualify.
"I think we had a bit of a headstart and you saw that in the Pro League games we played earlier this year."
Belgium were topping the table after six matches of the new-look nine-nation round-robin competition that extends over a two-year period and pits hockey's top sides against each other in regular competition.
"I'm a bit disappointed we weren't able to just keep on going, mainly because of the results we were achieving," the 51-year-old New Zealand-born McLeod added in an interview with Reuters.
"Now we have to recreate that performance gap, but it will be a fresh challenge."
McLeod, who has worked in various capacities in Belgian hockey over the last two decades, had planned a 12-month sabbatical after this year’s Games but has put that on hold to stay with the team as they readjust plans for next year.
He said the lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic had presented new challenges which had proven “stimulating”.
"Just trying to figure out how do we do this; what is going to be the best possible outcome for us has been quite a driving factor," he said.
"We've spent a lot of time working out how we best prepare for the Olympics in these current circumstances and a lot more detailed conversations with our sports science colleagues.
"Normally we have a formula that we reproduce, maybe fine tune a little, but this is really different and now were ad-libbing in areas where we've never been before but seeing some positive outcomes.
"All the nations have pressed the 'reset' button now and have to start from scratch again, but I think we are going to be OK," McLeod added.
(Editing by Christian Radnedge)
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