Olympic athletes don’t ask for much. They’re used to toiling in anonymity, many of them living and training on shoestring budgets for a fleeting shot at glory once every four years.
But it’s times like these where those athletes, including the ones hoping to represent the United States in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, could use a little something more from the people tasked with supporting them, financially and otherwise. They could use some leadership, and a voice of reason as the International Olympic Committee continues to hide from reality — or responsibility — in the face of a pandemic that now spans the globe.
The IOC insisted again this week there’s no need for "any drastic decisions at this stage" when it comes to the Tokyo Games that are scheduled to begin July 24. Never mind that several qualifying events and Olympic trials already have been postponed around the world. Or that athletes’ training schedules have been dramatically altered and interrupted. Or that anyone can responsibly suggest that some 11,000 athletes and tens of thousands more coaches, officials, volunteers and security personnel — not to mention a half-million spectators — could safely gather in Japan four months from now.
Yet on a conference call Friday morning, U.S. Olympic officials declined to weigh in with an opinion.
“We don’t have to make a decision [now],” USOPC chair Susanne Lyons said. “Our Games are not next week or two weeks from now. They’re four months from now, and I think a lot may change in that time period. So we are affording the IOC the opportunity to gather that information and expert advice. At this point in time, we do not feel it is necessary for us to insist that they make a decision.” “The decision about the Games themselves does not lie directly with us. That lies with a combination of the World Health Organization, the Japanese government and the IOC. But I can assure you that there is no circumstance when the USOPC would send our athletes into harm’s way if we did not believe it was safe.”
Still, this is a circumstance where the U.S. could help sway that decision and relieve some of the “fear and stress and uncertainty” that Lyons admits athletes are grappling with right now. Remember, it’s the U.S. that provides much of the funding for the Olympic movement, including a $7.75 billion TV rights deal between the IOC and NBC Universal that runs through 2032.
And later Friday, USA Swimming chief executive officer Tim Hinchey called on the USOPC to to use its voice and speak up for the athletes.”advocate for postponing this summer's Olympics until 2021.
'Bigger than the Olympics'
The IOC held conference calls earlier this week with various stakeholders, including U.S. officials, then put out a statement urging “all athletes to continue to prepare” for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics “as best they can.” And when pressed for any sort of timetable on when a decision might be made, IOC president Thomas Bach told the New York Times, “it would not be responsible in any way to set a date or take a decision right now.”
Others beg to differ, including the president of Spain’s Olympic committee, Alejandro Blanco, who said this week it would be unfair for the Tokyo Games to go ahead as planned, citing “unequal conditions” for athletes around the world in terms of training. Spain has been one of the hardest-hit countries thus far, with the death toll topping 1,000 on Friday and the number of confirmed cases nearing 20,000, according to its health ministry.
Former Canadian women’s hockey star Hayley Wickenheiser, a six-time Olympian and member of the IOC’s athlete commission, was even more outspoken than Blanco.
“This crisis is bigger than even the Olympics,” Wickenheiser said in a statement she posted on social media. “Athletes can’t train. Attendees can’t travel plan. Sponsors and marketers can’t market with a degree of sensitivity.
“I think the IOC insisting this will move ahead, with such conviction, is insensitive and irresponsible given the state of humanity.”
A board member of Japan’s Olympic committee, former Olympic judo medalist Kaori Yamaguchi, also called for a postponement this week, telling the Nikkei newspaper that the IOC was putting “athletes at risk” and vowing to push IOC leadership to do the right thing.
Yet U.S. officials declined to do anything close to that Friday, which is both disappointing and not at all surprising from an organization that often struggles to say or do the right thing, as the Larry Nassar scandal made painfully clear in recent years. There are new executives in charge now, but still some of the same problems when it comes to tone-deaf decisions and delayed reactions.
Sarah Hirshland, who took over as the USOPC chief executive officer in 2018, cited conflicting feedback from athletes as a reason for staying neutral right now.
“The reaction from people and what they’re feeling is quite different,” she said, and understandably so, given everything these athletes put into chasing what for many is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Hirshland also wanted to relay a message to athletes, saying, "As Americans right now, our No. 1 priority needs to be the health and safety of everyone and stopping the transmission of this virus, period, full stop. That should not conflict with the decisions someone is making about training. We are not suggesting under any circumstances that an athlete compromises health and safety in order to train."
Yet that’s effectively what’ll happen in the absence of some clarity on 2020 Tokyo’s fate soon.
The IOC's reluctance is understandable, and not just for the usual reasons stemming for greed. Only World Wars I and II have caused the Olympics to be cancelled before – in 1916 and then again in 1940 and ’44. And while former IOC vice president Richard Pound suggested last month a cancellation was the only viable option if something was to be done this time around -- “You just don’t postpone something on the size and scale of the Olympics," he told the Associated Press – Bach insisted Thursday that “cancellation is not on the agenda.”
Maybe not, but the clock is ticking. And the athletes are waiting.
Jonathan Finnoff, the USOPC's chief medical officer, said Friday that there are no known positive tests for COVID-19 among U.S. Olympic athletes to date, though four winter sports athletes are currently quarantined after exposure to someone diagnosed with the virus. One developed symptoms and is awaiting test results. Another athlete who returned home from Europe with signs of respiratory illness tested negative for the virus, Finnoff added.
But if we’ve learned one thing already in this global health crisis, it’s that it’s only a matter of time. And right now, it’s time for Olympic leaders to do the right thing.