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Why some are calling for the 2020 Olympics to be cancelled

Dan Wetzel
Columnist

The International Olympic Committee is barreling on toward staging the Summer Games in Tokyo like nothing unusual is happening in the world.

The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee is urging a wait and see approach — “We need more expert advice than we have today,” Susanne Lyons of the USOPC said Friday. “And we don't have to make a decision. The games are four months from now.”

USA Swimming, however, has seen enough to argue that those groups aren’t seeing the entire picture.

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The governing body for swimming, which has a far better sense of the situation on the ground among athletes, announced it was “respectfully [requesting] that the USOPC advocate for the postponement of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 by one year.”

A single governing body in a single country isn’t going to get the Olympics postponed, or likely sway anyone to even consider such a thing. That’s even true for the powerhouse swimming program for powerhouse Team USA. 

The impact here is that USA Swimming is sticking its speedos out there. Will others follow? Not just other sports within the United States, but other swim federations (or any sport federations) for other countries. 

Essentially, this murmur would need to become an uproar, because getting the IOC to bail on the billions it is scheduled to reap this summer will take a massive uprising. 

USA Swimming accurately points out that this isn’t merely about whether the show can safely go on in late July. To have that be the determining factor is to miss the broader question. The actual Olympics are just the final act of what is a pursuit months and years in the making. 

The IOC has proven over and over that it rarely cares about anything other than the money that can be made while the torch is lit — or in bribes during the bidding process. Everything else — the athletes training and qualifying — isn’t even secondary. It’s just something that magically occurs for their benefit. 

Katie Ledecky, arguably the best swimmer in the world, is having trouble finding a pool to train in as the coronavirus has shut down most options. (AP)

It’s just … boom … Simone Biles or Michael Phelps or Usain Bolt or LeBron James comes out of nowhere and drives television ratings that make future broadcast contracts even richer. Have fun in the athlete dorms kids, we’ll be at the Ritz.

What USA Swimming is pointing out is that the Olympics have essentially started for its athletes even if there isn’t a buck for the IOC to make of them … yet. No one just shows up and marches in the Opening Ceremony.

The work of getting there is being upended by the coronavirus, which hasn’t just inconvenienced routines but made training virtually impossible. Travel is limited. Pools everywhere are closed. Katie Ledecky, the best swimmer in the world, can’t find a pool to train in right now. She hasn’t been in a pool since Tuesday, and her coach says they’re actively searching for a place to train, but it’s been difficult. Their search has been reduced to locating a backyard pool big enough.

“It was time [to call for a postponement], at this point, for a couple reasons,” Greg Meehan, Ledecky’s coach, told Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Eisenberg. “The level playing field is a big issue right now as you look at the training situations here. And then quite frankly, I think there’s a pretty strong component of anxiety and stress among these athletes as they are thinking about the things they are not doing currently that they know they need to be doing if the Games are still on.”

Only athletes with the proper connections and resources — and geographic luck — are in position to workout at an elite level.

The challenges this has created, the stress of holding it together, the uncertainty of what is to come, has made this unlike any typical Olympics. 

“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,” USA Swimming CEO Tim Hinchey stated. 

“Our world class swimmers are always willing to race anyone, anytime and anywhere; however, pressing forward amidst the global health crisis this summer is not the answer. The right and responsible thing to do is prioritize everyone’s health and safety and appropriately recognize the toll this global pandemic is taking on athletic preparations.”

To continue without even considering postponement — which is the IOC’s current stance — is an insult to the reality of the situation. And that’s inside the wealthy United States. What’s it like elsewhere?

“It has transcended borders and wreaked havoc on entire populations, including those of our respected competitors,” Hinchey continued. “Everyone has experienced unimaginable disruptions, mere months before the Olympic Games, which calls into question the authenticity of a level playing field for all.”

Postponement is a logistical challenge and likely would require a scaling back of operations. It could also see a decrease in revenue, especially if sponsorship deals need to be renegotiated, especially during a potential global recession (or worse). No one is saying it is easy. Yet it can’t be the only factor that is debated. 

Historically, that’s the IOC’s main concern, however. And it is acting that way now, pushing forward like everything is normal. It’s certainly possible that the Games could be staged without dramatic risk to the public or the athletes. It’s also possible that it can’t. No one knows right now. 

That absolutely can be assessed later, but USA Swimming is saying that’s already too late. There is no later. There is only now. For the athletes, today is just as much a part of the Games as this summer.

“Our athletes are under tremendous pressure, stress and anxiety, and their mental health and wellness should be among the highest priorities,” Hinchey said. 

It will be an uphill fight for the IOC to even consider this argument, let alone make a similar prioritization. Money talks and there are billions to be made. But at least one group has stood up and made its voice heard. 

If enough follow, maybe the IOC listens.

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