Instead, as one of countless Olympic hopefuls whose training has been upended by the global novel coronavirus pandemic, Lochte is just another citizen of the world, dealing with the grim realities of the virus’s widespread impacts — which Tuesday claimed the Tokyo Olympics as a victim, with the Games pushed back to 2021.
“I’m disappointed because this was something that was very important to me,” said Lochte by telephone from Gainesville, Fla., where he had been training in hopes of making his fifth U.S. Olympics team. “But this is not just about me and all the Olympians. This is bigger. This is affecting the whole world. … It’s just postponed. It’s not canceled. The most important thing is making sure everyone is staying healthy and safe.”
Though Tuesday’s news, announced jointly by the International Olympic Committee and the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee, seemed inevitable — following the steady flood of postponements, cancellations and shutdowns across the sports world over the past several weeks — the upending of the Summer Olympics seems somehow bigger and more disturbing, given its global reach.
“As athletes,” American wrestler Helen Maroulis, an Olympic gold medalist in Rio de Janeiro in 2016, said in a telephone interview, “we’re going to have to rise above and be resilient, like the rest of the world.”
American runner Emma Coburn, a two-time Olympian and 2016 bronze medalist in the 3,000-meter steeplechase, tweeted, “Our dreams aren’t cancelled, they are just postponed.”
Olympic athletes construct entire, four-year segments of their lives in order to peak in the summer of the fourth year of the “quad.” While a one-year delay in that cycle may not seem like a big deal to an outsider, it is an unforeseen factor the effects of which are completely unknown — because no Olympian has even had to consider it.
Now that the decision has been made to postpone the Games, British swimmer Adam Peaty said in a statement, “I can focus on the here and now and, as soon as it is safe to do so, continue with my training and ultimate goal to represent my country at the Olympic Games. It will happen and when it does we will all be stronger and be able to celebrate what is an extraordinary worldwide event together.”
American gymnast Alec Yoder tweeted a six-second video of a whiteboard showing the Olympic rings and the words, “the dream / Tokyo 2020” — and a hand erasing the second 0 in 2020, replacing it with a 1.
At 35, well past the point where most swimmers remain competitive, Lochte is the perfect example of an athlete for whom even a one-year postponement looms large. Under normal circumstances, he would be pointing toward the U.S. Olympic trials for swimming in Omaha in June, where he would have been competing with swimmers nearly half his age for coveted spots on Team USA.
“It’s getting harder,” Lochte said, “because I’m not getting any younger."
American hurdler Lolo Jones, trying to make a return to the Summer Olympics at age 37, tweeted, “Retirement will have to wait another year.” She also joked: “[S]omeone order me a damn pizza. I got another year before I gotta be ready for the games.”
The IOC had been the target of widespread criticism in recent days, much of it coming from the athletes themselves, over its patient response to global concerns about the covid-19 pandemic. Jones, who competed in the 2008 and 2012 Summer Games as a hurdler and the 2014 Winter Games as a bobsledder, had been among the most vocal U.S. athletes in imploring the IOC to postpone Tokyo 2020, telling the Associated Press the indecision was “tearing athletes apart.”
When the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee surveyed its athletes over the weekend, it found 65 percent of respondents said their training had been severely impacted by coronavirus-related restrictions, including 25 percent who said they could not train at all. Sixty-eight percent of the athletes said they did not think the Games could be fairly contested if they went on as scheduled this summer.
“Our most important conclusion from this broad athlete response,” the USOPC said in a statement, “is that even if the current significant health concerns could be alleviated by late summer, the enormous disruptions to the training environment, doping controls and qualification process can’t be overcome in a satisfactory manner. To that end, it’s more clear than ever that the path toward postponement is the most promising.”
Lochte’s backstory would have been well-known by Tokyo. Only Michael Phelps, among swimmers worldwide, has won more Olympic medals than Lochte. But Lochte’s image was tarnished by an incident during the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games, where he fabricated a story about an armed robbery that led to a 10-month suspension by USA Swimming. He was suspended again, for 14 months by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency in 2018, after posting an image on social media of him receiving a shot of a vitamin (legal) via intravenous injection (illegal).
“After everything I’ve been through the last four years, I was ready. I was ready to go,” Lochte said. “I’m swimming amazing right now. But I’ve always had to deal with bumps in the road, and I’ve always overcome them. So this is just another bump. Like I said, the biggest thing is making sure everyone is healthy and safe.
“If anything, this will just p--- me off and make my fire even bigger. I’ll be more focused. I want it even more now. Nothing has changed. It’s just getting pushed back a year.”