As the drumbeat to postpone the Tokyo Summer Olympic Games grows louder by the day, with athletes and national governing bodies continuing to speak out amid a patchwork of dispatches suggesting one alternative or another, the International Olympic Committee announced, finally and very belatedly on Sunday afternoon, that it will decide the fate of the Games within the next four weeks.
In the midst of the expanding coronavirus pandemic, the IOC still could decide to keep the Olympics on the calendar as scheduled, July 24 to August 9, or it could postpone them. The Games will not be canceled, IOC president Thomas Bach said.
It was the world’s athletes who forced Bach’s hand, who successfully urged that something be done to begin to address growing concerns about their health and their ability to train for the Olympics in the midst of so much uncertainty.
For instance, nearly three-quarters of the 125 athletes who participated in a virtual town hall with the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee Saturday said they supported the postponement of the Games.
Bach himself had a chance earlier this month to show that he could handle what has become the biggest decision in Olympic history: the unprecedented call on whether or not to postpone an Olympic Games. This is nothing like suspending the NBA or NHL seasons, or postponing the Masters or the Boston Marathon. The Summer Olympics is the largest regularly scheduled gathering on earth. Preparation for something so massive is years in the making. Undoing that can be difficult, if not impossible.
THE GAMES MUST GO ON? IOC sets deadline for making a decision on whether to postpone 2020 Olympics
But Bach wasn’t up to the task then, triggering a groundswell that turned into a rebellion, led by the athletes, many of whom have understandable concerns for their well-being and the health of those around them while having their Olympic training severely disrupted by the outbreak that has exploded across the globe.
The athletes of the world needed Bach, once an Olympic athlete himself, a gold-medal-winning fencer from Germany, to be a leader at this crucial moment in history. What they found instead was a man who failed to rise to the challenge of the moment, who failed to understand that answers and empathy were essential, who chose a “business as usual, the Games must go on” stance when that became absolutely the worst possible position to take.
On March 4, in the midst of growing worldwide concern about the spread of the virus with the Olympics little more than four months away, Bach emerged from an IOC executive board meeting and said, stunningly, “Neither the word cancellation nor the word postponement was even mentioned.”
That was less than three weeks ago.
Asked how he could be so confident, he replied, “Because we talk to the experts.”
By that time, disruptions already were affecting some athletes. Olympic qualifying competitions had been postponed or venues had been changed, while travel already was a problem for athletes from China and other nations.
“This is challenging, yes,” Bach said, “but I must also say I’m pretty proud of the Olympic movement, for the great solidarity and flexibility everybody has shown so far.”
Solidarity and flexibility went out the window within days, as the Olympic community, now rudderless, found its voice in its athletes. When coronavirus restrictions went into place in more nations, including the United States, athletes like two-time Olympic swimming gold medalist Lilly King talked about losing access to the Indiana University pool, then the YMCA.
More Olympians and prospective Olympians spoke out around the world, asking for a postponement. Yes, the Games were still four months away, but training was now going on – or not going on – in a world that had shifted dramatically under their feet.
If only Bach, a long-time member of the oldest of the old boys’ clubs, the Euro-centric, elitist and most definitely out of touch IOC, could have risen to the occasion that day in early March. If only he could have said even a few compassionate words to tell the athletes, with the television rights-holders and corporate sponsors listening, that he understood, that he knew conditions were growing difficult, that the Olympics might need to be moved, that he was on top of it.
Instead, Nero fiddled while Rome burned. When Bach finally got around to sounding like he was aware of what was going on just a few days ago, then issuing his statement Sunday, it was too late. He already had lost the athletes.