That doesn’t mean just the International Olympic Committee, which seems to have been dragged to Tuesday’s inevitable announcement to postpone the Games because of the spread of the novel coronavirus. That means NBC, which paid $12 billion to broadcast seven Olympics in the U.S. It means Coca-Cola and Visa, Samsung and General Electric and all the companies that were expected to provide nearly $6 billion in sponsorship for the Tokyo Games alone. Part of the reason IOC President Thomas Bach and his cronies took so much time to reach the only sensible conclusion was that the people holding the money bags had to be consulted.
But the athletes: They spoke. And they were heard. Perhaps not early enough, but it mattered.
Now, the trick: Don’t forget that as the particulars of how and when the Games should be staged get figured out.
“We certainly felt that athletes’ voices made a significant impact,” Han Xiao, an American table tennis player, wrote in an email Tuesday. “I would encourage sport organizations to include athletes earlier in the process moving forward and to give athletes’ voices more weight. The process of making this decision could have been a lot smoother had the athletes been a more respected stakeholder, and hopefully we are consulted more in the months to come as details are ironed out.”
Xiao is the chair of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s Athletes’ Advisory Council. His voice matters, because he helps speak for all prospective American Olympians. And I find it both predictable and infuriating that the powers that be need to be reminded to include the opinions of athletes in their decision-making process.
Late last week and into the weekend, as the coronavirus pandemic continued to bring the world to a halt, Bach irresponsibly urged athletes to continue training even as gyms and other facilities boarded up. This past Wednesday, even as he held a two-hour conference call with athletes from around the globe, Bach said, “Everybody realized we still have four months to go.”
The athletes, of course, noticed how quickly the pandemic was affecting more people. The athletes, of course, not only articulated the limitations they were facing in training, but highlighted what the IOC and the USOPC should have been seeing as obvious: that continuing to train could either put the athletes in danger or endanger others with whom they came into contact.
“We heard your concerns, and we shared them,” USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland wrote in a letter to athletes after Tuesday’s postponement. “I thank you for being so forthcoming with your perspectives, and also for allowing us the time to hear from your teammates across all sports before making a recommendation to the IOC.”
But let’s not forget that the USOPC was hardly a leader in this regard. Yes, the organization appropriately offered a survey to 4,000 athletes, to which some 1,780 responded. The survey didn’t include what seemed to be an obvious question: Do you feel comfortable with the idea of the Olympics being held as scheduled? But at least there was engagement.
Among the revelations, according to the USOPC: “Nearly two-thirds of athletes feel that continuing to train would either put their health at risk or aren’t sure if it would put their health at risk.” And yet as late as Monday night, Hirshland said in a statement to the athletes she oversees: “It’s more clear than ever that the path toward postponement is the most promising, and we encourage the IOC to take all needed steps to ensure the Games can be conducted under safe and fair conditions for all competitors. We look forward to their feedback and direction.”
That’s two things: wishy and washy. Keep in mind this was roughly 24 hours after Canada said its athletes would not participate should the Games have been held this summer. In its statement — which many Canadian athletes rallied around, because their governing body clearly considered their health and safety paramount — Team Canada pointed out that continuing to train “runs counter to the public health advice which we urge all Canadians to follow.”
The Olympics, like so many athletic events, are a television show. Think about why they were scheduled for July 24-Aug. 9. That’s in the soft spot of NBC’s programming schedule, before the NFL’s regular season begins. Don’t be surprised if the rescheduled Games slide right into the corresponding dates next summer, because what would be a soft spot for ratings could become a bonanza.
But however that decision is made, keep the athletes both in the front of minds and the forefront of the conversation. Even with all the necessary corporate tangles, the Games are built on their bodies and their spirit and their stories. They’re why we remember particular Olympics or specific moments. They’re the reasons corporations and broadcast networks commit all that cash.
As the logistics for a rescheduled Games begin to take shape, the IOC and USOPC should reach out to them. Not in a month or a week or a day. Now. Ask for their suggestions, their input, their leadership. They’re equipped to be included. They want to be included. They deserve to be included — earlier and more than they were as this historic and unavoidable postponement came about.