SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4 News/Associated Press) – After facing pressure from concerned athletes, sports organizations, and national committees, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced Tuesday it would postpone the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games to prevent the spread of COVID-19.
The announcement, while not surprising, brought mixed emotions to Utahns such as Kathleen Noble, who would have competed in Tokyo this summer. Back in October, the 25-year-old Salt Lake City resident became the first rower from Uganda to qualify for the prestigious event.
In an interview with ABC4 News, Noble recalled the bittersweet moment.
“At that exact moment, I had just finished a very hard race. So I was exhausted,” she laughed. “My first thought was, ‘Oh my goodness. I just qualified!’ Then my second thought was, ‘Oh shoot! I just qualified, I have to keep racing hard like this for another nine months!'”
Marc Norman, CEO of the USA Climbing which is based in Salt Lake City, explained to ABC4 News the excitement their athletes had for the Tokyo event as it will be the first time sport climbing will be included in the Summer Olympics.
“Our sport is growing across the country. Climbing gyms, which are the life and blood of our organization, are popping up in communities all over the country,” he said.
As the COVID-19 pandemic grew in severity across the world, questions surrounding the Summer Olympics’ continuation became a serious topic for officials in the past few weeks.
“Everyone was concerned about the potential of large gatherings. But they were also concerned about not being able to train because it could risk injury or risk exposure to the virus,” said Norman.
The Olympics have only been postponed three other times in 1916, 1940, and 1944. But it was due to war, never a renegade virus like the COVID-19 that has accounted for more than 375,000 cases worldwide, with numbers growing exponentially.
Virtually every sport across the globe has suspended play in the wake of the pandemic. The worldwide economy is faltering and people are increasingly being told it’s not safe to congregate in large groups or, in some cases, even to leave their houses. Gyms are closed across America.
Holding Olympic trials in a matter of months was becoming a virtual impossibility. Olympic committees in Canada and Australia were saying they either would not, or could not, send a team to Tokyo in July. World Athletics and the three biggest sports in the United States — swimming, track and gymnastics — were calling for a postponement.
As recently as Sunday, officials said it would take up to four weeks to reach a decision. Four weeks ended up being two days. IOC President Thomas Bach and Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo met via phone Tuesday morning. They, along with a handful of executives from the IOC and Japan’s organizing committee, agreed to make the call.
One reason the IOC took longer to make the decision was because it wanted to figure out logistics, which will be a daunting challenge. Many of the arenas, stadiums and hotels are under contract for a games held from July 24th to August 7th. Redoing those arrangements is doable, but will come at a cost. Tokyo has already spent a reported $28 billion to stage the games.
“I think a number of organizations certainly saw it coming and saw it as a likelihood. But also understood the amount of work that had to be done behind the scenes to get plans in place to be able to announce something so big and its effects on so many people across the globe,” said Norman.
For athletes like Noble, the announcement brought mixed emotions.
“You’ve put so many hours into it and now it’s suddenly like you’ve run out of energy at some point. I don’t think it’s sustainable to train 5 hours a day for the next year and a half,” she said. “At this point, I think I will take a step back from my training. But then I kind of feel like all of those efforts and all of those gains that I’ve built up over the last few months are, hopefully not lost, but there is a bit of sense of futility.”
“You plan for years to peak for these critical events. Everything you’ve done has led to this moment in time and then to have that shift to a year, that’s a big change,” said Norman.
The decision offers a sense of relief for some athletes, who no longer have to press forward with training under near-impossible conditions, unsure of when, exactly, they need to be ready — and for what.
“With all of the problems associated with COVID-19, everyone has lost something. It’s easier to not feel bad for yourself because we’re all part of this process. Sure, it sucks for me but there are people who have lost their jobs or are at risk of the effects. Really, I’m not that bad off,” said Noble. “I think it was a wise decision.”
“As much as it can be a disappointment, it shows the deep consideration that the committees were giving to the matter. I think we all believe they are making the right decisions,” said Norman. “I know for our team, they’re looking forward to that extra time to get even more prepared to compete against the best in the world.”
The International Olympic Committee said the Tokyo Games “must be rescheduled to a date beyond 2020, but not later than summer 2021, to safeguard the health of the athletes, everybody involved in the Olympic Games and the international community.” The event will still be called the 2020 Olympics, even though they will be held in 2021.
“I’ll continue to train. But for the next few months, I’m kind of stepping back so it won’t be as intense. I’ll be able to pursue other goals and interests. I feel like all I’ve done for the past few months is work and row and work and row. It’s kind of liberating now to have a bit more time on my hands.”
“All these decisions for other events are still to come. We still have youth national championships, adult national championships, and collegiate national championships that we’ll have to consider when it’s appropriate to postpone or cancel,” said Norman.
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