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tara sullivan

The United States should have led the charge to postpone the Olympics

The 2020 Olympics were postponed until 2021 on Tuesday.
The 2020 Olympics were postponed until 2021 on Tuesday.Noriko Hayashi/The New York Times

Wiser heads finally prevailed Tuesday, admitting out loud what had become painfully obvious over the past days and weeks.

The Tokyo Summer Olympics could not go on as planned in 2020, not as nations around the globe continue to grapple with the spreading coronavirus pandemic, not as major cities are locked down and social distance is our new normal, not as training routines and regimens are irreparably altered.

Postponing the Olympics was a necessary step, but it’s a sad day nonetheless, one we can only hope does indeed lead to a future day of celebration.

A joint statement from the International Olympic Committee and the Tokyo organizing committee said Tuesday that “the Games of the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo must be rescheduled to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021, to safeguard the health of the athletes, everybody involved in the Olympic Games and the international community.”

There was no other choice. And while the IOC was predictably slow in acknowledging what the rest of the world had been saying, it is, after all, an organization with no national constituency to answer to and no other organizational goal but to put on a successful (read: lucrative) event.

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The correct decision was reached in the end, even if it had to be nudged along by an international community slowly waking up to the fact that there was no fair or reasonable way for the athletes to be properly trained for competition.

First the Canadians said they wouldn’t go. The Australians followed.

A man in a face mask walks past a display showing the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games logo in Tokyo on Tuesday.
A man in a face mask walks past a display showing the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games logo in Tokyo on Tuesday.CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images

The Americans?

Well, the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee decided to wait and see, unwilling as recently as Friday to take a stand, deferring to the IOC and Tokyo despite leading the largest and one of the most competitive contingents in the field.

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Eventually, US leadership had no choice but to speak up, which it did with a Monday evening request to the IOC to consider alternate plans. But the entire episode feels like such a lost opportunity to show real leadership in these unprecedented times.

The USOPC statement came only after some of its largest national governing bodies, such as USA Swimming and USA Track & Field, made urgent requests for action, knowing the athletes on their watch could not follow advice being given at the time and that participation as early as July would be untenable.

Up to that point, the USOPC was still urging athletes to continue training in whatever fashion they could, but at the same time asking them to put their health and well-being first. Those two requests were never going to mesh, not with nonessential businesses shuttered in so many corners of the nation, including the Olympic training centers in Colorado. As painful, heartbreaking, and difficult as it was going to be to accept, something had to change.

And so it will, with the Olympics postponed for the first time in their history. They were canceled in 1916, 1940, and 1944 because of two World Wars, and boycotted by various nations in 1980 and 1984, but our world faces a heretofore unseen situation. It is one that we all hope can and will be remedied by holding the Olympics in 2021, a plan that requires unheard of readjustments with logistics and has unprecedented ramifications to the economy of the host nation, but is one that should ease, if only a little, the worldwide disappointment Tuesday’s news wrought.

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As the IOC and Tokyo organizers conceded: “The leaders agreed that the Olympic Games in Tokyo could stand as a beacon of hope to the world during these troubled times and that the Olympic flame could become the light at the end of the tunnel in which the world finds itself at present. Therefore, it was agreed that the Olympic flame will stay in Japan. It was also agreed that the Games will keep the name Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.”

For all the heartbreak of missed opportunity caused by so many different sports cancellations — from the tear-stained faces of young athletes no longer tugging on their shin guards to the idle hands of professional ones no longer pulling on their jerseys — there is something different about the Olympics. The privilege of competing for country. The rarity of qualifying for an event that comes around once every four years. The dedication of training without, in most cases, a salary for doing so. For many of the athletes, what is lost once is lost forever.

That’s why USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland said in an open letter to US Olympic hopefuls, “My heart breaks for you, your fellow athletes around the world, our friends at Tokyo 2020, the people of Japan, and all who are impacted by this global pandemic and the decision to postpone the Tokyo Games 2020.”

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She also noted, “This summer was supposed to be a culmination of your hard work and life’s dream, but taking a step back from competition to care for our communities and each other is the right thing to do. Your moment will wait until we can gather again safely.”

Hirshland and the USOPC had been polling athletes for their opinions, and nearly three-quarters supported the postponement.

Turns out they were wise before their leaders were, and should have prevailed sooner. At least the right decision was made in the end.


Tara Sullivan is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at tara.sullivan@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Globe_Tara.