The Olympic torch completed its journey to Japan on Thursday. For the high and mighty worldwide Olympic leaders, that was viewed as a win, pretending as they all seem to be that somehow the 2020 Summer Games will go on as planned.
It all boils down to a very simple question. How?
How is there a foreseeable scenario in which a world currently stopped in its tracks by the spreading coronavirus pandemic will be stable enough by the end of July to come together in one giant athletic melting pot?
For American athletes, it just seems impossible, and the message they received Friday from the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee doesn’t make their plight any clearer. In a conference call with reporters following a Thursday meeting of the board of directors, both USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland and chair Susanne Lyons essentially advised US athletes to continue training in whatever way they can, on the presumption that they will be competing come July and August. Yet at the same time, they insisted the USOPC’s main priority is the health and well-being of athletes and their families.
Those two statements just don’t mesh, and they leave a trail of confused athletes in need of direction.
“Let me ask for your help in making very clear to the athlete population, all the way down to every club and pool and rink owner out there,” Hirshland said Friday. “As Americans right now, our No. 1 priority needs to be our health and safety, and the containment of this virus. Period. Full stop. That should not conflict in any way with the decision someone is making about their training.”
That declaration was in response to a question about Hirshland’s opening remarks, in which she encouraged athletes to adhere to local guidelines on social distancing, but at the same time told them that "if it is available to them and in a safe and in an appropriate environment based on local health official guidance to continue to do what they can to prepare themselves for competition.
“We know the training schedules of our athletes have been significantly disrupted and as we are having to be creative and nimble in adapting our lives, we are asking athletes to do the same but put their safety first and foremost.”
The inherent contradiction is impossible to ignore. Which is it? Business as usual or health and well-being above all? How is an athlete supposed to know what to do?
As distance runner and two-time Olympian Kara Goucher tweeted Thursday: “Stop putting athletes at risk @Olympics @iocmedia! Athletes are humans, they get sick! Postpone so they can #ShelterAtHome w/o worrying about losing fitness to competitors! You are losing any credibility that you care about the wellness of athletes! Athletes over money please!”
Consider the three-pronged problem facing American athletes, who make up the largest competitive contingent in the world and one that is geographically spread across 50 states as well as to points around the world.
One, they can no longer train as usual, not with social distancing, self-quarantine, or shelter-in-place orders being effected in some of our largest cities.
Two, they can no longer qualify as usual, not with major trial events postponed or canceled, realities that ensure anything but a level and fair system to name team members.
And three, they can no longer be assured of a clean playing field, whether they are ones who would consider doping because they can get away with it more easily among this confusion or will compete against those willing to dope in this new wild West landscape.
There are just so many logistical concerns to resolve.
And then there are the emotional components, including increased anxiety, for which the USOPC admirably said it will ramp up mental-health resources. But there also are so many diverse opinions. A younger athlete on a first Olympic mission might see things far differently than an experienced one on a last go-round.
“As diverse as our athletes are, so too are their perspectives, and that adds to the complication factor,” Hirshland said. “There are athletes out there for whom this feels like their only opportunity, their last chance. I don't think we're in a position where all athletes have a unanimous point of view.”
That means someone in leadership has to make the hard call. As of now, that’s not the International Olympic Committee, though there were some cracks in the armor Friday when an official from Japan called for a postponement.
There are four months still to go until the opening ceremonies, and that relatively extended window is the reason cited by both the IOC and USOPC in asking for patience. But this virus is unpredictable, passing its peak in some nations, hitting its peak in others, and not even taking hold (yet) in other regions of the world.
Yet IOC president Thomas Bach insisted to the New York Times Thursday that a cancellation is not on the table, and neither he nor anyone from the USOPC is willing to discuss any contingency plans even as they admit they are making them. How can we not keep asking, at least for a hard date by which a decision would be made?
The desire for optimism is understandable, maybe even enviable. No one with even a shred of empathy wants to take away someone else’s dream, particularly an Olympic dream that comes but once every four years. But given the state of the world, at the very least, delaying these Games doesn’t just feel inevitable. It feels right.