DENVER — Leaders of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee are sticking closely to the IOC’s position that it remains too early for drastic decisions, even as calls grow for postponing the Tokyo Games because of the coronavirus.
“We’d concur with them to say we need more expert advice than we have today,” Susanne Lyons, the chair of the USOPC, said during a conference call Friday. “And we don’t have to make a decision. The games are four months from now.”
In theory, no national Olympic federation has more power to alter the shape of an Olympics than the USOPC, which brings 550 athletes and its billion-dollar broadcaster, NBC, to the show every two years. But after a long day of board meetings, the committee showed no appetite for using that leverage to push for more certainty, even as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to spike in the United States.
Instead, Lyons and CEO Sarah Hirshland said a lot of what has already been said from IOC President Thomas Bach, whose most recent interview in The New York Times reiterated that plans are going forward for a Tokyo Games, whether they start July 24 or some other time.
While they press forward with plans, leaders in Italy, where the coronavirus has accounted for more than 3,400 fatalities, have pleaded with the IOC to change its stance.
And a growing number of athletes are calling for more decisive action from Olympic leaders: “The most infuriating part of this whole thing is it feels like the IOC is going to do what they want, regardless of what the athletes think,” U.S. Olympic silver-medal pole vaulter Sandi Morris tweeted late Thursday.
But there is also a contingent of less-vocal athletes who are not speaking up as loudly on social media and “for whom this feels like their opportunity, their only opportunity,” Hirshland said.
“It adds to the complication factor” in making a decision, Hirshland said.
Han Xiao, the chair of the athletes’ advisory council, confirmed that and said it’s why his group has not made any definitive statements encouraging a postponement.
“We are specifically asking for more transparency around the decision-making process, more information about what measures and conditions are being discussed, and less public emphasis on training and ‘business as usual,’ which is putting athletes in a bad position,” Han said.
Many athletes’ training regimens have, in fact, disintegrated, as gyms and communal workout spaces around the country have been closed. The USOPC has closed its Olympic training centers to all but the 180 or so who live at them — and many in those groups have chosen to leave campus.
Hirshland said it needed to be clear to every elite and recreational athlete out there that “as Americans, the Number One priority needs to be health and safety,” and not training.
The USOPC has increased availability of mental and emotional counseling, as anxiety builds over what comes next. Around 190 of 550 spots on the U.S. team are scheduled to be handed out at for gymnastics, swimming and track at Olympic trials in June — all of which are in jeopardy.
Both Bach and the USOPC leadership have acknowledged the realities of a qualification process that is being altered beyond recognition. Hirshland says the federation is working with individual sports, both at the national and international levels, to adapt in the event the Olympics take place without a traditional qualifying structure.
She also said that unless the IOC makes some announcement changing the July 24 start date, it has to keep pushing forward as safely as it can with operational and logistical plans to stage the games for its athletes.
“Our priority and our obligation is to the athletes we serve,” she said. “If the opportunity is available to them (to compete in the Olympics), we’re not going to be the reason they don’t have that opportunity. We will be there and we will be ready.”