Athletes must follow a strict regimen to prepare for the games, and leaders in individual sports have expressed concern. Siegel’s email focused on the welfare of athletes, whom the IOC has told to continue training—despite massive health risks and widespread government restrictions—as if the games will go on as scheduled.
The USOPC did not respond Saturday to requests for comment.
“While our world class athletes are willing to push themselves to their athletic limits in pursuit of Olympic success, the likelihood that they will be able to properly train in a safe and adequate environment, and replicate the excellence we have all come to expect, does not appear likely in the midst of this global crisis,” USATF’s statement read. “As we have learned, our athletes are under tremendous pressure, stress and anxiety, and their mental health and wellness is among our highest priorities.”
USATF joined Colorado Springs, Colorado-based USA Swimming in asking for the postponement, meaning the country’s two biggest sports federations are standing against the IOC’s insistence the games will go on as scheduled. USA Swimming sent a similar memo to the USOPC on Friday, and coaches explained that swimmers were unable to find places to train, adding another layer of stress as they cope with the coronavirus’s effects on daily life. Before taking an advocacy position, USA Gymnastics is polling its men’s and women’s national teams in all three Olympic disciplines—artistic gymnastics, rhythmic gymnastics and trampoline—to gauge athlete sentiment.
“We acknowledge that there are no perfect answers, and that this is a very complex and difficult decision, but this position at least provides our athletes with the comfort of knowing that they will have adequate time to properly prepare themselves physically, mentally and emotionally to be able to participate in a safe and successful Olympic Games, and that they can shift their focus toward taking care of themselves and their families,” Siegel wrote to Hirshland. “We urge the USOPC, as a leader within the Olympic Movement, to use its voice and speak up for the athletes.”
The USOPC appeared unmoved Friday evening after USA Swimming’s statement was released. In a statement, the USOPC said that the IOC believes it is premature to make a decision regarding the Tokyo Games and that it wanted to give the IOC the opportunity to gather more information before insisting it makes a call.
“We have also heard from athletes that they want . . . to ensure that we aren’t prematurely taking away any athletes’ opportunity to compete in the Olympic and Paralympic Games until we have better clarity,” the USOPC’s statement read.
Olympic hurdler Lolo Jones, who is training in Louisiana, said the USATF’s stance “brings you some sense of peace and relief.” She hopes the pressure will mount on the IOC so athletes can be relieved of stress. She said her races have all been canceled and she can’t find gyms or college tracks to train at because they have all been closed. Meanwhile, members of her family have lost their jobs and fallen into financial distress.
“Just because we’re Olympians doesn’t mean we’re immune to this disease,” Jones said. “Every time we’re going out in public and trying to find gyms and places to train, I’m like, ‘Really?’ The government is telling us to stay in our house, to self-quarantine, but we can’t because the IOC is being adamant the Olympics are going to go on. Every time I saw a statement from the IOC saying, ‘Hey, the Olympics will go on,’ and my world around me is being so ripped up, it feels like the house is on fire and the IOC is saying: ‘Don’t worry, it’ll be fine. Stay right inside your house.’ ”
Former 110-meter hurdle world record holder Renaldo Nehemiah, now an agent who represents several elite runners, agreed with the USATF’s request. Nehemiah would understand the competitive fallout of postponing an Olympics more than most. He would have entered the 1980 Summer Olympics as a heavy gold medal favorite, but the United States boycotted amid political tensions with the Soviet Union.
“The uncertainty of when normalcy will return places an extreme burden on the athletes,” Nehemiah wrote in an email to The Washington Post. “As of this week, most all training facilities have been shut down, outdoors and indoors. Thus, athletes and coaches have to become creative in order to try and simulate their regular training regimen. It’s impossible to replicate at an elite level. And it’s affecting the athletes’ motivation and ultimately their fitness and preparedness. The only sensible thing to do is postpone the games until there’s enough regression of the virus to not place lives in the balance. Life is more precious than games.”
One prominent track and field coach, speaking on the condition of anonymity to talk candidly about a sensitive issue, also noted training concerns, saying: “Everybody in the world is having issues with training facilities.
“All schools and universities are shut down,” the coach said. “If that’s the case, most people are out of luck, because almost everybody trains at colleges and universities. You can look at Instagram—U.S. world champion] Grant Holloway is doing hurdles in a grass field out in front of his house. That’s the case in the whole world.”
In an anonymous survey distributed Friday afternoon, USA Gymnastics President and CEO Li Li Leung asked whether athletes were in favor of a postponement, and if so, for how long. The survey also allowed gymnasts to explain their positions and share any other concerns. In a cover letter, Leung acknowledged the substantial effect the coronavirus crisis was having on athletes’ ability to train and asked that survey response be returned by noon Eastern time Monday.