USA Track & Field joins the push to postpone the Olympics amid coronavirus pandemic

USA Track & Field on Saturday morning joined USA Swimming in calling for the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics amid widespread disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

In a letter addressed to U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee CEO Sarah Hirshland, USATF CEO Max Siegel argued that it is not possible for athletes to prioritize everyone’s health and safety and still properly train for the Olympics. As a result, Siegel urged the USOPC to advocate to the International Olympic Committee for the postponement of the 2020 Olympics.

“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 that we have all come to expect does not appear likely in the midst of this global crisis,” Siegel’s letter reads. “As we have learned, our athletes are under tremendous pressure, stress and anxiety and their mental health and wellness is among our highest priorities.

“The right and responsible thing to do is to prioritize everyone’s health and safety and appropriately recognize the toll this difficult situation has taken, and continues to take, on our athletes and their Olympic Games preparations. We are all experiencing unfathomable disruptions and everyone’s lives are being impacted accordingly.”

Even as athletes across the U.S. and around the world have raised concerns about qualifiers being postponed and training becoming increasingly difficult, the IOC has publicly responded with a business-as-usual tone. In a release earlier this week, the IOC said it “remains fully committed” to starting the Tokyo Olympics as scheduled on July 24 and encouraged athletes to prepare “as best they can.”

In its first public comments since the coronavirus halted sports around the world, the USOPC on Friday morning largely echoed the IOC’s evasive stance, insisting there was no need for drastic decisions four months before the Olympics are scheduled to begin. During a teleconference with reporters, USOPC chair Susanne Lyons offered no specifics on her preference for what contingencies should be considered and urged American athletes to prioritize their health but to continue to train when possible.

It’s surely no coincidence that hours after that teleconference USA Swimming became the first national governing body to advocate for the postponement. Or that USA Track & Field followed suit just one day later. Prominent athletes from both sports have already faced significant disruptions in their training with the U.S. Olympic Training Centers in Colorado and New York both closing and athletic facilities on college campuses shuttered.

The most accomplished swimmer in the world has not been able to find a pool where she can train since Stanford closed its aquatic center last week. Katie Ledecky’s coach told Yahoo Sports on Friday that the five-time Olympic gold medalist has not been in the water since Tuesday and soon may have to resort to practicing in backyard pools.

“It has been chaos,” Greg Meehan said. “We exhausted every other possibility we could think of — private pools, community pools, asking other universities to open their doors to us. Every time we thought we had something it would end up getting canceled later that day or the next morning.”

The situation doesn’t appear to be any better for track and field athletes, many of whom are either unable to train up to their usual standards or unsure whether all that hard work will ultimately be for nothing. American pole vaulter Sandi Morris, a silver medalist at the 2016 Olympics, has been among the most outspoken athletes in her sport on social media.

In addition to the disruption for athletes trying to train for the Olympics, there is also the increasingly likely possibility that the global coronavirus pandemic will not have sufficiently subsided for it to be safe to bring people from all over the world to Japan this summer.

According to the World Health Organization, the number of confirmed cases of the coronavirus has exceeded 200,000 worldwide. It took over three months to reach the first 100,000 confirmed cases and only 12 days to reach the next 100,000.

“No matter what model I’ve seen, nothing has the pandemic ending by July,” said Dr. Ali S. Khan, a former CDC director who now serves as the Dean of the College of Public Health at the University of Nebraska Medical Center.

“China is at the end of its outbreak. South Korea seems to have taken care of it. Iran, Italy and the U.S. are taking off. And we have not yet started the outbreak in all these other countries that have just gotten their first, second or third case. We’re in very, very different phases of the outbreak across the world. To expect that all those phases will be over the end of July, I think it’s highly improbable. Not impossible but highly, highly improbable.”

The USOPC has so far supported the IOC’s wait-and-see policy, but that may change with two of its three most powerful governing bodies now publicly calling for postponement. USA Swimming and USA Track & Field oversee some of the Olympics’ most prominent athletes, from Ledecky, to Allyson Felix, to Caeleb Dressel, to Christian Coleman.

"We acknowledge that there are no perfect answers, and that this is a very complex and difficult decision," Siegel wrote in his letter. "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.

"We urge the USOPC, as a leader within the Olympic Movement, to use its voice and speak up for the athletes."

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