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Why Olympic Athletes Are Begging the IOC to Postpone Tokyo 2020

Social distancing and quarantine make training impossible

Manteo Mitchell
Manteo Mitchell

Photographer: Charles Mostoller/Bloomberg

U.S. sprinter Manteo Mitchell has a subwoofer that, in better days, amps up the studio in his house. Lately it also stands in as a 15-pound weight for the aspiring Olympian’s at-home workouts. When he needs 2.5 pounds, he grabs a heavy-duty candle. His typical training facility — the University of North Carolina Asheville — is closed, along with his backup gym and his second backup gym, all as part of the global effort to slow the spread of the coronavirus outbreak. 

Where and how to train is one problem. What to train for is another. All of Mitchell’s upcoming races — where he’d hoped to run a 400-meter time fast enough to get him to the U.S. team trials — have been canceled. “I’m still training as if I’m going to get a call that says, ‘There’s a race for you, go do it,’” said Mitchell, who won a silver medal at the 2012 London Games. “And whenever that happens, I just need to drop my time. As long as I have a lane, I have an opportunity.”

Mitchell, 32, is just one of thousands of Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls around the world whose carefully planned training has been upended by the Covid-19 pandemic. Unable to train or, in some cases, leave their homes, athletes and coaches have been the loudest call yet for the International Olympic Committee to take the unprecedented step of postponing the 2020 summer games, scheduled to begin July 24 in Tokyo. 

Team Canada said Sunday it would keep its athletes home, not only out of concern for the conditions in Tokyo in July, but for everything leading up to the games. “It is not safe for our athletes, and the health and safety of their families and the broader Canadian community for athletes to continue training,” the team said in a statement. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said the country’s indefinite international travel ban applied to its Olympic delegation, and the national Olympic committee told athletes to “start training for 2021.”

International and Japanese officials, after long resisting any hint of disruption, now say they are listening. Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Monday that the current state of the world wasn’t appropriate for the Olympics. The International Olympic Committee is now considering different possibilities, President Thomas Bach said, following weekend appeals from USA Swimming and USA Track and Field — which together won 29 gold medals and more than half of the country’s 121 total at the 2016 Rio Games. The IOC should have a decision in roughly four weeks, Bach said, though many expect it to come sooner. 

Until there is certainty, athletes will continue to train as best as they can, often in defiance of social-distancing protocols and other containment advice. “Holding trials and the Olympics as currently scheduled provides impetus for athletes, some of whom can’t even leave their homes right now by law, to defy public-health orders and advice given by medical authorities,” U.S. swimmer and 2016 Olympian Jacob Pebley said in a letter to the sport’s governing body.

That’s also raised questions of basic fairness. In Italy, the epicenter for the European outbreak, athletes have been almost entirely unable to train. In Norway, the Olympic team’s official training center in Oslo remains open to a rotating group of 25 athletes, chosen by their federations as potential medal contenders. As of at least last week, Australia’s high-performance rowing facilities were still open for Olympic athletes, and swimmers received special permission to stay in their local programs. 

The national teams themselves are starting to speak up. Last week, officials from the France, Germany and Great Britain teams urged the IOC to make a decision on the event’s fate. The heads of USA Swimming and USA Track and Field, possibly the two most important single teams in the Olympic movement, asked Team USA to start advocating for a postponement.

That’s not happening, at least not publicly. Team USA said Friday that it still hopes the games can be held as scheduled.  On Sunday, it said it was eager to explore alternatives with the IOC. “As diverse as our athletes are, so too are their perspectives on this issue, which adds to the complication.” said Team USA Chief Executive Officer Sarah Hirshland. “There are athletes out there for whom this feels like their only opportunity.”

For many athletes, it’s also the moment when they solidify the sponsorships and endorsements that enable them to train full-time. “I don’t have a salary, everything comes from sponsorship,” said Ysaora Thibus, a French fencer. “Most of the times contracts change right after the games. It’s a moment to solidify how you’re going to be for the next four years.”

Still, she said, she hoped the games will be postponed. She and her husband, American foil fencer Race Imboden, have been staying with their trainer in Los Angeles, and since their gym closed, they haven’t had access to their equipment. “It would be more responsible to postpone the Olympics,” she said. “We want to be examples and show what are the good things to do in a difficult moment, and we know sport isn’t the priority now. The more important thing is to be safe.”