Would-be Olympians and their coaches have gone from days and weeks of mulling one sort of uncertainty raised by the coronavirus pandemic — Are the Tokyo Games going to be held as scheduled? — to a whole other set of questions now that an indefinite postponement is official.
To begin with: When, exactly, are these Summer Olympics going to be staged? All that’s known for sure as of now, based on Tuesday’s announcement by the International Olympic Committee and local organizers, is that instead of July 24 to Aug. 9, 2020, they will be sometime — any time at all — in 2021 (although, oddly enough, they’re still going to be known as the 2020 Games).
What will the qualifying rules be? Some sports already finished that process. Others are in a total state of flux.
Will the delay force athletes to contemplate abandoning the Olympics altogether, because retirement beckons? And, if so, what will they decide?
“More than anything, it pushes back what life was going to offer,” said Cat Osterman, who turns 37 next month and is the oldest player on the U.S. softball team.
“My husband and I have talked about the possibility of having a kid after July of 2020,” said Osterman, a pitcher who is one of two holdovers from the team that collected a silver medal at the 2008 Olympics, “and now that has to go into effect after 2021.”
Or as Belgian cyclist Greg Van Avermaet, the 2016 Olympic road race champion who turns 34 in May, put it, “The postponement means I will be another year older, which isn’t ideal, but I know I will be as motivated as ever.”
American fencer Kat Holmes was an Olympian four years ago and was on her way to earning a spot this time, with an eye on starting medical school in New York in the fall. She had everything lined up, too: Holmes was going to catch a flight from Japan to Newark Airport right after the closing ceremony so she could make it to her first day of school orientation.
Now everything becomes more complicated, including the prospect of missing a bunch of class time if the Tokyo Olympics are shifted to May 2021, for example.
“I have to postpone the rest of my life for a year and kind of confront what the rest of a qualification means. We don’t know,” Holmes told The Associated Press.
“I didn’t come this far not to give 100 percent at the Olympics. … And it’s kind of the same thing with med school,” she said. “I finally got into med school just like two or three weeks ago. It seems like a decade ago.”
U.S. swimmer Allison Schmitt is someone else who might need to reconsider her plans.
Schmitt — who owns eight medals, including four golds — has dealt with depression and left her sport for two years after the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games. But she returned to training under coach Bob Bowman in hopes of making her fourth Olympic team this year.
She’ll turn 30 in June and told the AP that it’s too soon to make a definitive choice.
“I know that our goals have not changed just because the date of the Olympics has changed,” Schmitt said. “Yes, this is time filled with emotion. I don’t think it would be smart to make an immediate decision with these emotions.”
To be sure, there also are those who could benefit from the delay, because it offers extra months to let injuries heal.
Basketball stars Kevin Durant and Kyrie Irving come to mind (so long as the rescheduling doesn’t conflict with the NBA season, of course), as do such reigning Olympic champions as South African 400-meter runner Wayde van Niekerk and British tennis player Andy Murray.
Others have financial concerns.
Baseball is returning to the Olympics for the first time since 2008, and former New York Mets minor leaguer Jeremy Wolf was set to play outfield for Israel. Now the 26-year-old Wolf will try to get a non-baseball job this summer and has no idea if he will be able to play in 2021.
“It changes a lot of things for a lot of guys,” Wolf said in a text message to the AP. “Who can still play, who can afford it (’cause we’re not being paid), who will still be in game shape? A year-and-a-half is an eternity in baseball time.”
The overwhelming initial sentiments Tuesday seemed to be a mix of disappointment and understanding — even among former athletes.
“My first thought was I was relieved. Now there’s more of a chance that we can beat this and can do what we need to do to save as many lives as possible,” said Michael Phelps, the retired swimmer who collected a record 23 golds. “I was happy to see them logically making a smart decision. It’s just frustrating it took this long.”
Three-time beach volleyball gold medalist Kerri Walsh Jennings called the postponement the “responsible choice.”
“Can you imagine making this decision after how many years and how much blood and sweat on a global level? People are having a problem calling off weddings, and calling off little tournaments, so imagine with all the billions of dollars that’s gone into this,” Walsh Jennings told the AP.
A little more than half of the qualifying spots for Tokyo had been determined before the COVID-19 outbreak began affecting sporting events large and small around the globe, so sports federations will need to make adjustments.
Entire countries are now on lockdown, more than 400,000 people worldwide have been infected and more than 18,000 have died, according to a running count kept by Johns Hopkins University. While most people suffer mild to moderate symptoms from the new virus, the fatality rate is higher among older people and those with existing health problems.
“There is no need to host the Olympics at this time and have athletes sick and dying,” said Julius Yego, a silver medalist in the javelin for Kenya four years ago.
The IOC and Japan still have work ahead to pull off a well-organized and safe Summer Games in the unprecedented circumstances of a postponed Olympics (they’ve been canceled during wartime in 1916, 1940 and 1944).
Competitors are dealing with the new ground, too, right along with everyone else.
“Many have both a sense of relief and of grief,” U.S. women’s volleyball coach Karch Kiraly said about athletes’ reactions to the postponement.
“Tons of unknowns. We will of course reset, re-engage, and figure out things one day at a time,” Kiraly, the only person to win Olympic gold in beach and indoor volleyball, wrote in an email to the AP. “What other choice do we have?”
Ellingworth reported from Düsseldorf, Germany; Fendrich reported from Washington. Also contributing were Tales Azzoni, Ronald Blum, Jay Cohen, Jimmy Golen, Will Graves, Pete Iacobelli, Gerald Imray, Mattias Karen, Daniella Matar, Janie McCauley, Brian Mahoney, Mutwiri Mutuota, Paul Newberry, Eric Olson, Anne M. Peterson, Tim Reynolds, Jake Seiner and Dave Skretta.
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