Much as the International Olympic Committee and Tokyo organizers want to believe conditions will be better in four months, that it will still be possible to hold the Tokyo Games this summer, that idea has very quickly become untenable.
On Tuesday, the IOC asked athletes to continue preparing “as best they can” amid a pandemic as a result of the novel coronavirus outbreak. But how, exactly, with self-quarantines and shelter-in-home measures becoming increasingly common and anti-doping procedures impractical at best and irresponsible at worst? More specifically, where, as university athletic facilities, public gyms and even national training centers shut down?
And, increasingly, why? While athletes are stressed and anxious about their ability to train and compete, there so many other people vital to the Games who are now in danger of being infected with COVID-19 as they work to complete preparations.
For the past month, I’ve been steadfast in saying the IOC didn’t need to make a decision on the Games now, that with the Opening Ceremony not until July 24 it owed it to athletes to wait a month or two and see where things stand. But it’s become clear that holding onto that hope is not in anyone’s best interests.
No one wants to see the Olympics and Paralympics postponed. But it’s the right thing to do, the responsible thing to do.
At this point, the only thing to do.
“Even if they said, ‘We’re going to postpone this two years,’ then I know. Then I can say ‘OK, I don’t have to stress the next three weeks trying to work out.’ I can self-quarantine and be safe and do everything they’re asking,” gymnast Colin Van Wicklen told USA TODAY Sports.
“Even if it’s the worst-possible outcome, ‘Hey, were going to cancel it,’ at least you have some knowledge,” he added. “(Instead) you end up just playing the waiting game, refreshing Twitter to see if there’s any new information. That’s kind of mentally taxing on me.
“I know there’s no right answer and they want to give it time. But it sucks just waking up and waiting for new information.”
The billions of dollars that have already been spent on the Tokyo Games aside, the IOC is hyper-sensitive to the fact athletes have sweated and sacrificed for most of their lives for an event that only comes around every four years. President Thomas Bach himself would likely be a double gold medalist in fencing had West Germany not joined the boycott of the 1980 Games in Moscow.
The IOC is also influenced by the fact it has been here before, with fears about Zika, terrorism attacks and nuclear tensions on the Korean peninsula disrupting the Games coming to nothing.
But this is new territory. COVID-19 has accounted for more than 200,000 infections and 8,000-plus deaths in more than 150 countries. With no vaccine or cure for the virus, which spreads easily, the best course of action is to limit exposure through social distancing and quarantines.
That presents a variety of challenges that make it impossible to go forward with the Games as scheduled. Here’s a look at three of the biggest:
Many U.S. athletes train at colleges and universities, and most of those closed their athletic facilities within the past 10 days. The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado shut down Wednesday for 30 days, and another facility in Lake Placid, New York has also closed.
Restrictions on public gatherings and shelter-at-home orders in California have shuttered most public gyms. Even when athletes can find one, few have the specialized equipment they need. Or provide the proper training environment.
Fencer Race Imboden can do cardio work in his garage. But to train properly, he needs sparring partners. Factor in coaches, and there could be 30, 40 people at the gym in no time.
“We’re trying to keep our physicality up. Unfortunately, fencing is a combat sport so we need other people to spar with and we need space to do it,” Imboden said.
Emma Coburn, the 2017 world champion in steeplechase, has been able to keep up with her training by running outside and lifting weights at a private gym. But her weekly sessions with a chiropractor and a massage therapist are no longer possible.
After the Big 12 ordered its schools to close their athletic facilities until at least March 29, Van Wicklen, who trains at Oklahoma, went back to his hometown of Houston. But the gym where he trained before he went to college announced it was closing 15 minutes after he arrived from Oklahoma. He checked out two other gyms, and one had equipment that would make do. It has now closed, too.
The U.S. women’s eight rowing team is still able to get on the water in Princeton, New Jersey, but can only train in pairs. The men’s eight, which trains in Oakland, was sent home with indoor rowing machines. While that’s fine for overall fitness, neither scenario does much as far as the technical preparation – stroke rates, chemistry, timing – needed for an actual race.
This is not an issue unique to athletes in the U.S. National and local restrictions are being imposed daily around the globe, limiting athletes’ access to coaching and training facilities.
“The Olympics, it’s once every four years and, for a lot of people, this will be our only opportunity,” Matt Imes, high-performance director for U.S. Rowing. “But at the same time, we understand what’s going on globally and nationally and want to do our part to keep people safe. Which leaves us with a lot of bad choices. Those two things don’t go together. They just don’t.”
More than 11,000 athletes are expected to compete in Tokyo and, as of Tuesday, the IOC said just 57% of them have qualified. Dozens of qualifying events, both domestically and internationally, have had to be canceled or postponed. There are swimmers and track and field athletes who still need to achieve required qualifying times.
The IOC has said it will work with the individual sports to adjust their qualifying procedures, possibly even add extra spots. But even with four months still until the Olympics are scheduled to begin, time is running out.
Much of North America and Europe, along with parts of Asia, are on lockdown at least until early April. Even if things miraculously improve to the point qualifying competitions can be held, rescheduling them will take time. It’s simply not feasible to have an Olympic trials one week and the actual Olympics the next.
“If we aren’t allowed to train and we aren’t allowed to have track and field meets, what are we supposed to do? How are we even supposed to qualify for the Olympic Games?” hammer thrower Gwen Berry told USA TODAY Sports on Tuesday.
Nor is this fair to the athletes.
Elite athletes build their training schedules so they’re peaking for big events and have time to recover after. Even if Olympic trials can be held as scheduled – gymnastics, swimming and track and field are all in late June – athletes aren’t likely to be in their best shape.
“There’s a lot of question marks, and it’s not what I would want to have when I’m training for the Olympic Games,” Imboden said. “I wouldn’t want all those question marks. I would want to be very sure of what I’m doing and where I’m going and how I’m going to be prepared. But all those things now are not certainties.”
Since we’re on the topic of fairness, there’s no way to ensure a level playing field in Tokyo when some athletes are only able to do conditioning work, if that, while others can go about their normal training. Or ignore the restrictions they’re supposed to be observing.
Russian skullduggery aside, the best way to ensure clean competition is with rigorous anti-doping procedures. But sending doping control officers to test athletes is at odds with social distancing, to say nothing of best health practices during a pandemic.
The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency has said it will continue to test, focusing on athletes who are training for Tokyo. But that surely won’t be the case around the globe. China, where the pandemic originated, shut down testing for about three weeks last month. Italy, the current epicenter, is doing fewer tests.
That has sparked concerns that cheaters will take advantage of the gaps in testing. That even if the Olympics are held, there will be no way to ensure they’ll be clean.
“I know that they don’t want people to freak out,” said Han Xiao, chair of the USOPC’s athletes’ advisory council. “But just because they say it’s going to happen doesn’t necessarily convince everybody it’s going to happen.”
The IOC likes to say it operates with the best interests of the athletes in mind. Here’s its chance to prove it. Asking athletes to continue training puts their physical and mental health at risk, and has the potential to be a threat to the general public, as well.
Postpone the Games. Now.
Rachel Axon contributed to this report.
Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour.