U.S. Olympic committee echoes IOC evasiveness on 2020 Olympics amid coronavirus

In their first public comments since the coronavirus effectively shut down the sports world, United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee leadership fell in line with the IOC’s evasiveness and ambiguity on the status of the 2020 Olympics.

On one hand, USOPC chair Susanne Lyons said: “We are focused first and foremost on ensuring the health and well being of our athletes, as well as the public at large.”

On the other hand, Lyons also said “it’s of course our deepest wish that the athletes of the world can still safely travel to Tokyo and achieve their hopes and dreams that they’ve worked for for years.”

Those were prepared remarks, on a Friday media teleconference, the morning after a two-day board meeting. When pressed on contingency plans, and the increasing unlikelihood that the 2020 Games can be held this summer, Lyons and USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland were vague.

They’re “preparing for a variety of outcomes,” Hirshland said.

But they did not specify what those potential outcomes are, or what the USOPC’s preferences are, or when decisions will be made.

They said they need “more expert advice and information than we have today to make a decision. And we don’t have to make a decision. Our Games are not next week or two weeks from now. They’re four months from now. And a lot may change in that time period.”

Hirshland acknowledged, though, that “this is a time of extreme anxiety for many of us, certainly for those athletes who are incredibly confused, facing an enormous amount of ambiguity about what may come this summer.” The USOPC, she said, has “doubled down on mental health resources,” and “expanded the accessibility of those resources,” and is encouraging athletes to make use of them.

UNIVERSAL CITY, CALIFORNIA - NOVEMBER 19: United States Olympic Committee CEO Sarah Hirshland speaks onstage during the 2019 Team USA Awards at Universal Studios Hollywood on November 19, 2019 in Universal City, California. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)
United States Olympic Committee CEO Sarah Hirshland spoke with media on a teleconference Friday. (Photo by Amy Sussman/Getty Images)

What Hirshland did not say is whether postponement is on the table, or whether there is a timeline on when a decision would be made by the USOC. Because the IOC has not done either of those things.

Athletes are concerned because they are reading the news and hearing the opinions of experts. And many of those experts don’t see how the Olympics can possibly take place in July as the COVID-19 pandemic worsens. “I think the odds that they’ll go forward are very low,” global health expert Steve Morrison told Yahoo Sports last week.

The International Olympic Committee has thus far remained vague and seemingly unconcerned. It said in a statement on Tuesday that it “remains fully committed to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.” IOC president Thomas Bach reiterated, in a Thursday interview with the New York Times, that “cancellation is not on the agenda.” He did say that the IOC was “considering different scenarios,” but refused to say whether postponement to 2021 had become a realistic option.

Friday, the most powerful national Olympic committee in the world reiterated it will follow the IOC’s lead. Lyons and Hirshland said the USOPC has been communicating regularly with the IOC “at the highest levels,” including directly with Bach. They avoided divulging any specifics on what that communication entails.

When asked if the the USOPC might act before the IOC, Lyons said a decision on the Games was up to the IOC, the World Health Organization and the Japanese government.

Seconds later, she also said: “I can assure you there’s no circumstance when the USOPC would send our athletes into harm’s way if we did not believe it was safe.”

The call was full of, as one reporter put it in a question, “mixed messages.” Hirshland, time and time again, repeated that, “as Americans, right now, our No. 1 priority needs to be our health and safety, and the containment of this virus. Period. Full stop. That should not conflict, in any way, with the decision someone is making about their training.”

Yet the persistence of Olympic officials that the Games will go on makes training necessary. Thousands of athletes around the world, and hundreds in the U.S., are unable to train without endangering their own safety or that of those around them. The USOPC itself has shut down two training centers. Hundreds of facilities around the country are closed. There is, Lyons acknowledged, “fear and stress and uncertainty” among athletes.

And yet the second prong of the USOPC’s blanket message to all of them, from Hirshland: “We’re also asking athletes, if it is available to them in a safe environment, and in an appropriate environment, based on local health official guidance, to continue to do what they can to prepare themselves for competition.”

Many feel they have to. Because, as Hirshland admitted, “There are athletes out there for whom this feels like their opportunity, their only opportunity, their one chance.”

But nobody – not the IOC, nor their own Olympic committee – has publicly given those athletes any concrete information on whether or when they will get their chance.

In short, nobody knows what to do.

“These are, as everyone knows, unprecedented times,” Lyons said. “There is no operating manual for how to proceed.”

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