The Olympics are on their own in the sporting world and are going to wait until the last possible moment to make a decision
No one can tell the IOC what to do, which lays bare the stark reality of the situation surrounding Tokyo 2020
The IOC Executive Board laid out in no uncertain terms today what the goal of organizing the Olympic Games over the next four months will be: do everything possible to make sure the event goes on as planned this July.
“The IOC remains fully committed to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, and with more than four months to go before the Games there is no need for any drastic decisions at this stage; and any speculation at this moment would be counter-productive,” read the statement the IOC EB put out today, amid constant speculation over the fate of the 2020 Games.
Every day there is new information and policies being put in place by governments around the world in an effort to combat the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the globe. What started in China, is now centered in Europe according to the World Health Organization, and has now reached all 50 states in the United States of America.
As the pandemic broadens, the timeline for its peak becomes less clear by the day. The world cannot say when it will be collectively on the downslope fighting the disease, meaning it is unclear when “normal” life will return everywhere reopening the transient, globalized society we depend on for our daily routines.
Without that information, the IOC is unable to take a position putting itself in an awkward state as we lurch closer and closer to the proposed date of the 2020 Olympic Ceremony set seven years ago. This is an understandable position from that vantage point, but one that does not and certainly cannot satisfy the world, the Japanese government, nor athletes competing in the Games.
Last month, the IOC set up a task force with the WHO, Japanese Government, and Tokyo 2020 to stay in the loop about developments of the COVID-19 virus. When asked by Olympics Everywhere about what this task force discusses, a WHO spokesperson said that it “works closely with countries and international organizations that plan mass gatherings to provide rational and science-based public health guidance and recommendations when preparing for mass gatherings as well as recommendations on measures during and after gatherings so that risks can be managed and mitigated”.
To put it bluntly the WHO works to help provide responses to global outbreaks, while also steering countries in the right direction to manage them, while also studying these outbreaks to help provide best practices for the next global event.
Even more bluntly, “It is not the role of WHO to call off or not call off any type of events,” said Tarik Jasarevic, WHO Spokesperson, to Olympics Everywhere.
“As each international mass gathering is different, the factors to consider when determining if the event should be cancelled may also differ. Any decision to change a planned international gathering should be based on a careful assessment of the risks and how they can be managed, and the level of event planning.”
Jasarevic said that “there is never zero risk with any mass gathering,” and that organizers and governments should rely on “proportional, evidence-based decisions about these types of issues based on their assessed risk of holding the event in their country” with both organizers and local health authorities.
In other words: the decision to stage the Olympics will come down to the IOC and the IOC solely. The Olympics are the IOC’s flagship event, its property, and its event and its event alone in the face of a global pandemic.
As each day passes, the targets regarding the Olympics continuously move, as do the situations that would allow the IOC to make the call regarding the Games. It is the worst possible combination just mere months before a highly calibrated event, which is at the center of a four year cycle of highly calibrated events. In addition to keeping its system in place and preventing a ripple effect touching every Olympic sport over the next few years, the IOC is projecting “confidence [in] the many measures being taken by many authorities around the world will help contain the situation of the COVID-19 virus”.
Yet, in the past few days cracks have begun to emerge in the IOC’s confidence and defiance to delay or cancel the event like FIFA did with moving both the Copa America and European Championships from 2020 to 2021. Even the Japanese Olympic Committee was not immune from COVID-19, with a Vice President testing positive for the virus today.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reportedly told the other heads of state in the G7 that he is committed to staging Tokyo 2020 in its “complete form,” to showcase the resiliency of the world moving past the COVID-19 outbreak. This sentiment was shared by the G7 leaders, and reinforced by saying cancelling the Games would be “unthinkable”.
Holding Tokyo 2020 in its “complete form” does not mean that the Games would be started on July 24, 2020, just that they would go on to the fullest extent from which they were planned. This sentiment is shared by a large percentage of the Japanese population, with recent surveys showing 70% of citizens believe the Games will be delayed.
Meanwhile, not taking a decision has real consequences on athletes training for their Olympic moment. Qualifying events are being cancelled or postponed, and athletes are having to readjust their lifestyles to get training amid calls for social distancing.
“The IOC encourages all athletes to continue to prepare for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 as best they can,” the IOC EB statement said today.
“We will keep supporting the athletes by consulting with them and their respective NOCs, and by providing them with the latest information and developments, which are accessible for athletes worldwide on the Athlete365 website and via their respective NOCs and IFs.”
Yet, not all within the IOC agreed with this viewpoint, as IOC Athletes’ Commission member Haley Wickenheiser, who called the EB’s viewpoint irresponsible to athletes and their safety:
Even National Olympic Committee Presidents have begun to speculate about the future of the Games, with French NOC President Denis Masseglia saying to Reuters the peak of the viral outbreak must come by the end of May or staging the Games on time will be untenable.
Greek pole vaulter Katerina Stefanidi took to twitter to say the IOC “wants [athletes] to keep risking our health” in the name of preserving normalcy for the Olympics.
Stefanidi took questions from Olympics Everywhere about the situation, where she was due to be the last torchbearer in the Greek leg of the Torch Relay before handing the flame over to a Japanese delegation to take the flame to Japan. The Greek leg of the relay was scrapped, but the ceremony will go on without spectators on March 19 at the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens.
Her answers were wide ranging and critical of the IOC. A full excerpt of her answers can be found below.
Olympics Everywhere: How has your training been impacted by the global guidelines to enforce social distancing and the closures of many businesses?
Katerina Stefanidi: Our stadiums closed down last week. We have been training on the beach, the street and at home currently. We are lucky to have decent weather here and a few things we can make work at home for lifting. Of course I can’t pole vault at any of those places so there is none of that happening.
OE: Where are you based while you train?
KS: We came to Greece because I was assigned to deliver the Olympic torch on Thursday. The Olympic relay has been cancelled but I think I will still do something on Thursday at the Panathinaiko Stadium. We were going to stay for the full month of March but we don’t want to go back to the US now for multiple reasons so most of our preparations will take place in Greece.
OE: Have you received any help from your National Olympic Committee in terms of health guidelines, and support as competitions have been cancelled?
KS: Like most countries the government is the one giving out the guidelines. Our NOC and federation are working with the government to allow very few athletes to access the training facilities. But this creates several issues. One and in my opinion most important is that it is now basically up to us to decide how much to risk our health and the health of those around us in order to train properly. They, and by they I mean the IOC, are asking us to choose between health risk and sport. Additionally what is going on creates two types of unfair advantages. One is that different countries are doing different things to help their athletes so athletes from different countries are having different “opportunities” to train. The second is that within the same country certain athletes are being favored. So for instance me, that I have already qualified for the Olympics will get access to the stadium before an athlete is that hasn’t but is close to qualifying, which is obviously unfair to those athletes and hard for the federation to set a line of who to allow in and who to not.
OE: Have any events that you were scheduled to compete in been cancelled?
KS: My first official competitions have not announced a cancellation yet however we were planning to go back to the US and start competing in some college meets in April and May, and all of those have now been cancelled.
OE: Has there been any guidance about changes to Tokyo 2020 qualifying?
KS: World Athletics is working hard to adapt to the current situation in terms of the qualifying standards and I trust that they will make the right decision. The problem is that no matter what their decision is it won’t matter a lot if most competitions are cancelled anyways.
OE: Do you believe it is irresponsible for the IOC to ask athletes to keep training amid a global effort to combat COVID-19?
KS: I believe their comments are starting to become negligent. I understand and want to believe that in Tokyo they will do the best they can to keep us healthy and safe. But they are telling us to keep training now? When the whole world is trying to avoid each other. How? I do not mean how practically, I mean how do that safely? A lot of athletes train in big groups. How are swimmers supposed to train? Gymnasts that all touch the same instruments? Team sports? Even us pole vaulters that land on the same pit. It doesn’t exactly fill me with confidence that their tone and confidence hasn’t changed since their first statement about this in mid January (or so).
OE: Have you been tested for COVID-19?
KS: I have not. I am healthy and quarantined (until Thursday at least for the delivery of the torch) so I don’t want to become a burden to the health system when there is seemingly nothing wrong with me.
OE: Would you feel comfortable attending an Olympics held anytime in 2020 even if the global pandemic has been contained?
KS: This is difficult to answer. If tomorrow everything somehow went back to normal I would love to be part of the Olympics once again, I have been waiting for it for four year. I’m ready and in great shape. But that’s not realistic. I might be pessimistic but I don’t see a situation where it would be safe for us to all be locked in the same Olympic village this year.
OE: Do you have any other thoughts on this situation?
KS: I want to be clear that there is nothing I would like more than things somehow taking a positive turn and all of us being able to be in Tokyo this summer. I have waited and trained for four years for the opportunity to successfully defend my title. But we are living in strange times and a very volatile situation and I would appreciate it if the statements coming out depicted the situation athletes are living in and maybe even tried to be compassionate to those athletes.
Once the flame is handed over to Tokyo 2020 the Torch Relay will begin later this month, scaled back from past relays. Opening and closing ceremonies each day will be held without spectators, but people can watch from the streets if they are feeling well. Torch bearers will not be able to run if they have a fever. Toshiro Muto, Tokyo 2020 CEO, called these decisions “heartbreaking”.
Meanwhile, volunteer training would begin in May at the earliest according to Inside the Games, but venue specific training for specialized volunteers set to begin in April is “under consideration”. Every day the situation regarding COVID-19 changes and new information paints a picture of less certainty. There are now less than 130 days until the original Opening Ceremony date for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.