The head of USA Swimming is calling for the upcoming Tokyo Summer Olympics to be postponed until next year, citing disruptions the COVID-19 global pandemic has forced onto athletes’ lives as well as their training and competition schedules.
USA Swimming CEO Tim Hinchey made the request in a letter sent to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, saying he felt “compelled” to ask for a delay in one of the world’s largest sporting events. It’s the most prominent such call yet in the U.S., coming from one of the country’s most successful sporting federations — and one whose athletes make up a large chunk of the U.S. Olympic team.
The Tokyo games are set to begin in July. In a recent news conference, President Trump said experts’ estimates of when life might return to normal have ranged from, at best, July to August. Despite such dire predictions, Olympics organizers have insisted the Summer Olympics will take place as planned, even as a number of other high-profile sporting events have been either canceled or postponed.
Concerns about the deadly respiratory virus’s ability to spread at large gatherings have prompted the Kentucky Derby to be postponed until September. The NBA and NHL suspended their seasons; the MLB and pro golf have also hit the pause button.
On Friday, USA Swimming said it’s time for the Olympics to follow suit, calling a postponement “the right and responsible thing to do.”
Citing the stress, pressure and anxiety that the COVID-19 pandemic has brought to USA Swimming’s athletes, Hinchey said, “It is with the burden of these serious concerns that we respectfully request that the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee advocate for the postponement of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 by one year.”
In sending the message, USA Swimming is channeling the frustrations many current and former athletes have felt in watching International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach and other leaders refuse to discuss any contingency plans for how the Olympics might adapt to the pandemic.
With the Summer Olympics set to begin in four months, the Olympic flame landed in Japan today.
“Amid the smiles and pomp there was not a hint of the growing concerns that the Tokyo games might not be practical, in the face of a spreading virus,” NPR’s Tom Goldman reports. “There was plenty of that concern on a two-hour conference call this week that included Bach and more than 200 athletes and athlete representatives.”
Here’s how Han Xiao, who heads the Athletes Advisory Council on the USOPC, described the call to Goldman: “Even before I hung up the phone, I was pretty unhappy, I was mad, I was distraught.”
“It’s getting more challenging to train,” Goldman says. “Gyms are closing — even the USOPC’s main training center in Colorado shut down this week.”
The coronavirus has taken a toll on competitions that feature potential Olympians. USA Swimming has cancelled all its sanctioned events through the end of April. That’s in addition to a marquee TYR Pro Swim Series event that was scheduled for next month in Mission Viejo that was canceled, and the combined Open Water National and Junior National Championships that were postponed.
Hinchey also asked U.S. officials to join his call for a delay, stating, “We urge the USOPC, as a leader within the Olympic Movement, to use its voice and speak up for the athletes.”
Shortly after USA Swimming went public with its postponement request, Sarah Hirshland, the CEO of the USOPC, issued a statement saying athletes’ safety is her organization’s top priority. In a phone call with reporters, Hirshland also said the USOPC is hoping to “have clarity as soon as that’s practical.”
While the IOC is staying mum about any potential contingency plans for the Summer Olympics, Hirshland said the U.S. committee is looking at many possible outcomes other than the games going ahead as planned.
“We’re doing an enormous amount of scenario planning trying to be as prepared as we can for every potential outcome,” Hirshland said. “It is our hope that our athletes will have the ability to achieve their dreams in some capacity and certainly the focus is on Tokyo 2020 and will continue to be, and we will do everything we can not to give up on our athletes and do everything we can to support them and their preparation for the opportunity to compete at the Olympics.”
Former track star Michael Johnson, a four-time Olympic gold medalist, says the IOC should at least give the public and athletes a sense of what its window is for deciding whether to postpone the 2020 Olympics.
“Athletes must keep training but for many there’s nowhere to train!” Johnson said via Twitter. “They may risk their lives and others trying to continue training.”
In his letter to top U.S. Olympics officials, Hinchey said, “As this global pandemic has grown, we have watched our athletes’ worlds be turned upside down and watched them struggle to find ways to continue to prepare and train – many for the biggest competitive opportunity of their lives.”
While the head of USA Swimming acknowledged there are no perfect answers to the dilemma of how to mount a huge sporting event in an age of pandemic, he called the postponement the a “concrete path” that would allow athletes to adjust their plans accordingly.
The COVID-19 pandemic, Hinchey said, “has transcended borders and wreaked havoc on entire populations, including those of our respected competitors. Everyone has experienced unimaginable disruptions, mere months before the Olympic Games, which calls into question the authenticity of a level playing field for all.”