Canadian athletes have mixed feelings about the International Olympic Committee’s four-week deadline to determine the fate of the Tokyo Games.
In an open letter to athletes on Sunday, IOC president Thomas Bach said that the world governing body will spend the next four weeks deciding the best option for the Games amid mounting criticism from athletes and sports organizations.
It’s the first time since the COVID-19 pandemic began that the IOC has said it’s considering other options. And it had Canadians feeling relieved both that cancellation isn’t being considered, and that there’s a small light at the end of the tunnel. But anxiety remains around the uncertainty of the Olympics amid a global health emergency that has brought the sports world to its knees.
“It’s nerve-racking, you want to know when it’s going to happen,” said Brittany Crew, the Canadian record-holder in women’s shot put. “So I’m happy that they finally made a decision to call it in the next four weeks, because it is unfair for [the IOC] to say, ‘Hey, we’re gonna go on in July,’ when we don’t know what’s going to happen with this virus.”
The IOC’s change in strategy comes after Bach’s conference call with the executive board. The IOC said in a statement that they’re examining scenarios to modify plans for the Games to go ahead as scheduled on July 24, plus changes to the start date of the Games, adding that “cancellation is not on the agenda.”
“I think there was good news today saying that cancellation wasn’t on the table,” Crew said.
Bach and Japan’s organizing committee had consistently said the Games would go ahead as planned. Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe declared the Games going ahead would be “proof that the human race will conquer the new coronavirus.”
Their lack of flexibility in these unprecedented times sounded tone deaf to athletes around the world who’ve lost access to training facilities at a time they would normally be nearing top physical shape.
Stuart McMillan, a Canadian speed coach based in Phoenix, Ariz., called the IOC’s deadline “The very definition of kicking the rock down the road.”
Evan Dunfee, a world bronze medallist in race walking, read Bach’s letter to mean the Games will be delayed.
“It just takes time to figure out and co-ordinate how to move the mountain that is staging the Games and we only get one shot at announcing it so let’s make sure we get it right,” Dunfee said. “I just don’t personally see any way in which the Games can start in July.”
Canada is among numerous countries that have gone into virtual lockdown, meaning weight rooms, pools and gyms are closed, leaving athletes to find creative ways to stay in shape. Travel bans have eliminated the ability to train abroad. Numerous competitions, including countless Olympic qualifying events, have been postponed.
“It’s pretty clear to me as an athlete at this point that it’s not going to be happening as planned,” said boxer Mandy Bujold, a two-time Pan American Games champion. “It is going to take time to decide on the best alternative. I personally do hope it’s a new date and not a complete cancellation.
“Staying healthy right now is the No. 1 priority for everyone. I will continue to do the training that I can do from home and do my part in keeping my community and family safe.”
The International Paralympic Committee president Andrew Parsons supported Bach’s deadline. The Paralympics are scheduled to open Aug. 25.
“The next four weeks will provide time to see if the global health situation improves, while giving a window of opportunity to look into different scenarios should the dates of the Games need to be changed,” Parsons said in a statement. “As you can imagine, potentially changing the dates of the Olympic and Paralympic Games is a huge logistical challenge, and the IPC will support the IOC every step of the way.”
Brent Lakatos, an 11-time world champion in wheelchair racing, was happy the IOC at least offered a deadline for its decision.
“I understand they need more time to make a decision on what to do,” he said. “But with the trajectory of things these days, I can’t imagine they will do anything other than postpone it.”
Criticism of the IOC’s position has grown in recent days. Both governing bodies for track and field and swimming in the United States have called on their Olympic officials to push for a postponement, and Swimming Canada later backed its Canadian counterpart.
National Olympic committees in Brazil, Slovenia and Norway are among those pushing for a postponement until the global health crisis subsides.
“The last week or so there’s been a little bit of a groundswell . . . calling for postponement, and then you see the IOC had held fairly firm and that kind of left everything sort of up in the air you didn’t really know what to believe,” said Scott Tupper, captain of Canada’s men’s field hockey team. “To have kind of a timeline now is a little bit comforting.
“It’s still obviously difficult, people wondering what they should be doing and, if everything goes ahead, how they’re going to be impacted, or if it doesn’t go ahead . . . but to have a little bit more of a clear timeline is a positive step for sure.”
Women’s basketball star Kia Nurse said she trusts the “[Canadian Olympic Committee] and Canadian health officials who have to make tough decisions are going to do so with the best interest of staff, fans and Canadian athletes in mind.”
With countless cancellations, only 57 per cent of Olympic qualification spots have been determined.
While Canadian marathoner Reid Coolsaet said he’s relieved that a decision is coming, he wishes “it was sooner.”
“I’m lucky with my event I can still train, but I need to know when to peak and that depends on when I’ll be racing again. The Olympics going ahead or not is a big piece of the puzzle for someone like me who is still looking to qualify,” Coolsaet said.
Dunfee wished Bach’s letter included a call to action from athletes.
“An acknowledgment about how well the athletes have done so far dealing with the pandemic in their respective countries and encouragement to continue to be the role models we can be in our communities, as well as a commitment from the IOC that they’ll do the same,” he said. “What actions have they taken to prevent the spread of the virus and ensure the safety and peace of mind of their staff.”
Since the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896, the Games have only been cancelled during the world wars including 1916, 1940 and 1944. There have been three major boycotts, in 1976 in Montreal, 1980, and 1984.
There have been more than 330,000 cases of coronavirus around the world, with more than 14,000 deaths.
“There is a dramatic increase in cases and new outbreaks of COVID-19 in different countries on different continents,” the IOC said. “This led the [board] to the conclusion that the IOC needs to take the next step in its scenario-planning.”