You know what’s counterproductive? Forcefully claiming that the Olympics will be contested on schedule and unhindered in a world that is in complete and utter crisis. Perhaps, in the near term, that serves Japan, which desperately wants to stage the Games to boost both its economy and its morale. Perhaps it serves NBC, which invested $12 billion to broadcast 10 Winter and Summer Games between 2012 and 2032.
You know who it doesn’t serve? The athletes, on whose backs the Olympics are built but whose thoughts too frequently don’t matter enough. Nor does it serve public health, given the coronavirus pandemic that has parts of the world paralyzed.
The athletes are caught in the middle and have no clear idea how to proceed. Continue a strict and regimented training program designed to peak for qualifiers that might not take place? Or curtail training in hopes of protecting themselves and others — but risk falling behind if, against all odds, the show goes on as scheduled?
“Athletes are in a no-win situation where they are trying to continue to prepare for the Olympic/Paralympic Games, but they are finding it more difficult to do so and will need to take more and more risks in order to get the appropriate training,” Han Xiao, a table tennis player who serves as the chair of the USOPC’s Athletes’ Advisory Council, wrote in an email to The Washington Post. “They will eventually be endangering both themselves and the public in order to prepare to compete, and it will not be their fault.”
Xiao said his council does not have an official position on whether the Olympics should be postponed or canceled, but it has heard from athletes across sports. Right now, he said, athletes are against cancellation, which makes sense. These people aren’t just deciding whether to go for a run after work. These runs are their whole lives. Players in the NBA or Major League Baseball will have another season if this one is canceled. An athlete preparing for the Tokyo Games has been building to this point for four years — and more. The idea of cancellation makes the brain hurt and the heart fall.
But Xiao said more athletes are open to the idea of postponement. Internationally, some are calling for it. Their training already has been disrupted. Like the rest of us, they’re concerned for their safety.
They deserve clear and transparent messaging about contingency plans should the Games not be able to start as scheduled July 24.
“I would like to encourage all the athletes to continue their preparation for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 with great confidence and full steam,” IOC President Thomas Bach said March 3.
Think about how long ago that feels and how much has changed since. Yet the IOC hasn’t backed down from that stance, as absurd as it seems. How is an athlete to train “with great confidence and full steam” in the current environment? Spain and Italy, for instance, are completely shut down. Try finding great confidence and full steam there.
“We want the Olympics to take place, but with security,” Spanish Olympic Committee President Alejandro Blanco said in a statement reported by Reuters. “We’re an important country in the world, and four months before the Games, our athletes can’t arrive in equal conditions.”
That is plain fact, and Spain is not alone. There are so many health concerns when considering whether to stage an Olympics given there will be more than 11,000 athletes and countless officials, fans, media and workers arriving from all over the globe. But if experts deem it safe enough to pull off, it ought to be done as a fair competition, right? That already seems impossible.
“I think the IOC insisting this will move ahead, with such conviction, is insensitive and irresponsible given the state of humanity,” Hayley Wickenheiser, a Canadian hockey player who is a member of the IOC’s Athletes Commission, wrote Tuesday on Twitter. “We don’t know what’s happening in the next 24 hours, let alone the next three months.”
The head of the French swimming federation, a pharmacist named Gilles Sezionale who is working on the coronavirus impact in his country, was blown away by the IOC’s tone-deafness this week.
“I can’t explain it,” he said in an interview with the newspaper Le Parisien. “What they write is indecent. It’s shocking.”
Even in their steadfastness, the IOC must be working through alternatives and scenarios. To not do so would be irresponsible. The athletes deserve to be included in that discussion. Short of that, they should at minimum be informed of it. How will officials make a decision? When will officials make a decision?
“Although it’s not correct to speculate, the message that we are going full-steam ahead is speculation,” Xiao wrote in his email. “We still have no information about when the decision will be made whether to postpone, and how the IOC will make that decision.
“What conditions need to be met, for example, for the Games to proceed? This is the type of information that we would like in order to have certainty that athletes and the general public will be appropriately protected.”
That’s exactly right. If, in fact, the IOC is being guided by health experts the world over, then they should share the specifics that are driving their decision-making processes. According to the World Health Organization, Japan had 873 confirmed coronavirus cases as of Wednesday. Does the IOC have information that would lead it to believe that number will be, say, zero by July 24? What about the travelers — athletes, sponsors, fans, all of them — coming from countries, including the United States, where the worst is yet to come?
About the United States: The USOPC is holding a board meeting via video conference Wednesday and Thursday. It is approaching the first Olympics under the leadership of new CEO Sarah Hirshland. Will Hirshland do what her predecessor, Scott Blackmun, failed to do in spectacular fashion: protect athletes’ safety and well-being above all else?
On Wednesday, the IOC said Bach held a conference call with more than 200 athletes from around the world.
“We will keep acting in a responsible way in the interest of the athletes,” Bach told an in-house IOC interviewer afterward.
Will they? The athletes are certainly wondering.
“The decisions the IOC is making and the way they communicate those decisions is not just affecting people four months in the future,” Xiao wrote in his email. “It is impacting them right now.”
Becoming an Olympian is, at some level, built on hopes and dreams. But staging a safe Olympics must be based on facts and figures that are clearly communicated. There is no room for bravado. The Games may be months off. The decision to deal with a delay that feels inevitable should be made right now.