Opinion: USOPC leadership needs to show actual leadership and call on IOC to postpone

Oh, for the blissful ignorance and hubris of Olympic leaders, both internationally and here at home.

Never mind those trucks hauling away coffins in Italy. Ignore the ghost town in once-bustling Times Square. Look past the locked doors of gyms and athletic facilities across the country. Tune out the dire warnings and predictions of epidemiologists and public health experts.

There are still four months until the Opening Ceremony for the Tokyo Olympics. Things could change! The novel coronavirus, which skyrocketed from 100,000 known cases to 250,000-plus in the last two weeks, might magically disappear! Unicorns carrying a vaccine, drugs to treat COVID-19 and enough face masks and protective gear for medical professionals around the world could appear!

Wake up, people.

The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee leadership held a teleconference Friday morning and parroted the party line of the International Olympic Committee. While counterparts in Italy, Spain, Ireland and even Japan have urged the IOC to postpone the Tokyo Games, board chair Susanne Lyons and CEO Sarah Hirshland are choosing instead to bury their heads in the sand and cross their fingers.

“We have expressed (to the IOC) all of the concerns and challenges, that they are obviously very well aware of, that we and the rest of the world are facing,” Lyons said. “I think we would concur with them to say that we need more expert advice and information than we have today to make a decision.

“And we don’t have to make a decision,” Lyons added. “Our Games are not next week or two weeks from now. They’re four months from now, and I think a lot may change in that time period. So we are affording the IOC the opportunity to gather that information and expert advice and, at this point in time, we do not feel that it’s necessary for us to insist that they make a decision.”

At least one of their national governing bodies doesn’t think so. On Friday, USA Swimming called on the USOPC to ask the IOC to postpone the Games. 

It’s quite possible, probable even, that Lyons and Hirshland would say something very different privately. But there is a political undercurrent to all things in the Olympic movement, and a future host of a Games – the Summer ones in Los Angeles in 2028, to be exact, and maybe another Winter one in Salt Lake City – are naturally going to be reluctant to do anything that challenges or embarrasses the IOC or Tokyo organizers.

But somebody has to be the adult in the room and stick up for the athletes for whom everyone is supposedly so concerned.

It’s true, as Hirshland pointed out, that some U.S. athletes are still able to train and will want to exhaust every last hope of the Olympics going ahead as scheduled. But that isn’t the reality for most of them.

Swimmers, divers, gymnasts, athletes in water polo, combat sports, team sports – the vast majority of those U.S. athletes have been unable to do much more than conditioning and drills for the last week to 10 days, and that isn’t likely to change anytime soon.

Athletes sweat and sacrifice for most of their lives in the hopes of making it to the Olympics. But they don’t want to go just to go. They want to be at their best and compete, and they’re very quickly running out of time to do that.

They are begging for direction and clarity, concerned not only for their own Olympic prospects but the risk they could pose to their own communities and the message they’re sending by continuing to train.

“Our athletes are under tremendous pressure, stress and anxiety, and their mental health and wellness should be among the highest priorities,” USA Swimming wrote in its letter requesting postponement.

Yet all they’re hearing from the IOC, and now the USOPC, is a bunch of patronizing doubletalk.

“None of us can be certain what is to come,” Hirshland said. “But we are doing what we can to try to prepare ourselves both to be flexible and nimble and to adapt as circumstances change. But to also look ahead and try to make some projections about possible outcomes and put ourselves in the best position we can to be ready in the eventuality of any of those outcomes.”

I don’t even know what that means. And if I’m an athlete training to represent my country, I shouldn’t have to try to figure it out. Or pore over the recent statements by IOC President Thomas Bach and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe searching for clues about whether postponement has become more likely.

Yes, the situation is changing rapidly. Even a week ago, you could make the argument that it was prudent to wait, not wanting to deny athletes what might be their best, or in some cases only, chance at an Olympics.

But then the bodies began piling up in Italy and the emergency rooms were overrun. Lockdowns were imposed or strongly recommended across the United States and much of Europe. Health experts warned – or more like reminded, since they’ve been saying this all along – that there is no quick or easy fix for this pandemic.

“Our eyes are wide open to the challenges ahead even though our hope remains strong,” Lyons said.

Hope has been overtaken by reality, however, and it’s time Olympic leaders acknowledged that. Athletes deserve every chance to compete. But when it’s clear that’s no longer possible, they deserve honesty.

Follow USA TODAY Sports columnist Nancy Armour on Twitter @nrarmour. 

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