Update: The International Olympic Committee announced Tuesday morning that the 2020 Summer Olympics are postponed, likely to 2021.
We are mostly numb to the jolts now, as they pertain to sports. As the coronavirus pandemic grows in scope, and grim, grimmer and grimmest scenarios are test driven, the cancellation of a random event here or there barely registers in our consciousness.
There are, after all, bigger things to worry about.
But officials for one event, the pinnacle of the international sports calendar every four years, still refuse to cater to reality. I speak, of course, of the Olympics. Officials stubbornly — and dangerously — have clung to the illusion that they can still somehow figure out a way for the Games to go off as planned.
At a time when coronavirus cases are spiking and large swatches of the world are sheltered at home, that is just foolhardy. It is beyond time for the International Olympic Committee to come to the same conclusion that virtually every governing body, and an increasing number of athletes, have grudgingly, sadly, reluctantly — but necessarily — wrapped their brains around.
Namely, that the Olympics must be postponed. And they will be postponed. The IOC just doesn’t want to admit it officially yet, which is dangerous in its own right. It forces athletes to try desperately to find a way to keep training at a time when that is at odds with health considerations and social-distancing guidelines.
Dick Pound, the outspoken IOC member from Canada, told USA Today on Monday that the 2020 Summer Games — scheduled to begin July 24 in Tokyo — are going to be postponed, likely to 2021.
“On the basis of the information the IOC has, postponement has been decided,” Pound told columnist Christine Brennan. “The parameters going forward have not been determined, but the Games are not going to start on July 24, that much I know.”
That flew in the face of the statement just a day earlier by IOC president Thomas Bach. In a letter to athletes, Bach said he would take the next four weeks to determine whether the Games would be postponed. And sure enough, later Monday Pound walked back his remarks a bit. He told the Los Angeles Times, “We’re all reading the tea leaves and so on, but the Japanese themselves are talking about postponing. A lot of national Olympic committees and countries are calling for a postponement.”
Indeed, the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic Committees have already said they won’t send athletes to Tokyo unless the Games are postponed. Australia followed suit.
In the U.S., the organizations governing both track and swimming — the largest contingents of Olympic athletes — called for the Olympics to be postponed until 2021. USA Gymnastics added its voice Monday with the same recommendation, and even later Monday the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee chair Susanne Lyons and CEO Sarah Hirshland shifted course and backed postponement. Sebastian Coe, head of World Athletics, the international governing body for track and field, wrote a letter to Bach over the weekend in which he said the current July-August schedule is “neither feasible nor desirable.”
This is all heartbreaking, of course. I feel real empathy for the men and women who have geared their training to peak in July for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for many of them. It’s just another layer of misery, on top of the college and high-school kids who had their winter championships and spring seasons yanked out from under them.
But such are the harsh contingencies forced upon us by a virus that doesn’t adhere to calendars.
In his letter Sunday, Bach said it “would still be premature” to make a decision on the Olympics — other than to vow it wouldn’t be canceled.
But now is precisely the time to postpone the Games, so athletes can stop trying to figure out ways to train when so much of society is being shut down. Two Olympic training centers in the U.S. have already shuttered — along with most gyms, pools and facilities. Furthermore, it’s almost laughable to think of competitors from around the world convening to compete in close contact — and live together in the Olympic Village — in July.
Yes, the scheduled Opening Ceremony is still four months away, but 43% of the more than 11,000 athletes still need to qualify. It would be virtually impossible to hold the necessary Olympic Trials as the effects of the coronavirus rage on, without much sign of abating yet, especially in North America and Europe.
Hayley Wickenheiser, a four-time Canadian gold medalist in hockey and a member of the IOC’s Athletes Commission, put it best in an interview with CNN.
“This crisis is bigger than even the Olympics,” she said. “Athletes can’t train. Attendees can’t travel plan. Sponsors and marketers can’t market with any degree of sanity. … We don’t know what’s happening in the next 24 hours, let alone in the next three months.”
The logistics of any sort of postponement are staggering. Besides the 11,000 athletes from more than 200 countries, we’re talking about 25,000 journalists and hundreds of thousands of tourists. That’s followed by the Paralympics, attracting another 4,400 competitors from around the world.
As The Washington Post pointed out, postponing an Olympics would involve numerous stakeholders, sponsors, countries, sports federations and national organizing committees. There would be headaches lining up the global sporting calendar, and it would be disruptive for athletes who have geared for a specific date. That’s not to mention the millions of nights already booked in hotels that would have to be rearranged.
In that light, and the $12.6 billion price tag for staging the Olympics (and more than $5 billion in anticipated revenue, based on the most recent four-year cycle), it’s understandable why the IOC would make postponement a last resort, to be executed only under the most dire circumstances.
Well, guess what. The last resort has arrived. Dire is now a default setting. It’s time to make official what already is inevitable.