In a survey of more than 4,000 athletes from six different continents, 78 percent of athletes said the Olympic Games should be postponed. But that doesn’t make the uncertain path forward any easier to navigate.
For world champions and Olympic hopefuls alike, some clarity has finally come regarding the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, which are officially postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
After weeks of mounting pressure, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee announced on Tuesday morning their decision to postpone, but not cancel, the Summer Games “to a date beyond 2020 but no later than summer 2021.”
That decision seemed imminent by late Monday, as the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC) issued a statement urging the IOC to reschedule the Games, and the Canadian and Australian Olympic Committees announced they would not send teams to a summer 2020 Olympics. Veteran IOC member Dick Pound also confirmed a postponement to USA TODAY on Monday afternoon.
“It’s sad and heart-breaking, but the most necessary thing we can do. I can’t even have emotion in it,” 2017 world steeplechase champion Emma Coburn told Women’s Running in a phone interview on Monday afternoon.
As the coronavirus outbreak continues to accelerate across the globe, with more than 400,000 confirmed global cases and nearly 50,000 U.S. cases as of Tuesday afternoon, many athletes are left unable to access training facilities due to shelter-in-place and social distancing mandates.
Together with two-time Olympic triple jump champion Christian Taylor, Coburn helped pressure the USOPC and the IOC to postpone the Games by surveying track and field athletes around the world about the situation through The Athletics Association. The group polled more than 4,000 athletes from six different continents this weekend about Tokyo 2020.
“We feel it’s unfair to ask athletes to continue to live and train in this limbo,” Coburn wrote in a joint statement with Taylor released on Monday. “Athletes are risking their health as well as the health of their coaches and families, and indeed wider society, to continue to prepare for an Olympic Games that is likely to be postponed.”
We surveyed thousands of Track & Field athletes all over the world and it’s clear that the athletes overwhelmingly want Tokyo 2020 to be postponed.
We are calling on @iocmedia to announce the postponement now.
— TheAthleticsAssociation (@WeAreTheSport) March 23, 2020
The results of the survey were overwhelming: 87 percent of respondents said their training was adversely affected by the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, whether due to social distancing or government-mandated shutdowns of gyms and other workout facilities. 78 percent of respondents said the Olympic Games should be postponed, though the same percentage said the 2020 Summer Games should not be canceled outright.
“Our dreams are not canceled, they are just postponed,” Coburn wrote on instagram.
Barely two weeks ago, the Olympic bronze medalist was preparing for her 10k debut at the Stanford Invitational in early April. She was also planning to race her debut 5k at Payton Jordan in May. Now, her Boulder, Colorado-based training group led by her husband and coach Joe Bosshard isn’t holding formal practice.
She admits she’s disappointed, but is trying to focus on the bigger picture.
“This type of global pandemic is 100 percent out of my control, so there’s nothing I can do other than be as responsible as I can be as a citizen,” she said. “There’s no point in getting up in arms about a decision like this, when it’s so important for global public safety, the safety of athletes and everyone in the world.”
The 2020 U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials are currently being rescheduled for next year, but a non-Olympic Trials USATF Championship could still be on the table for 2020, according to USATF’s Susan Hazzard.
“We will have a championship event if it’s possible,” Hazzard told Women’s Running on Monday afternoon. “We would have to listen to what local health authorities [advise].”
The reality is that right now, no one knows exactly when it will be safe to host sporting competitions or other large-scale events without fear of spreading the coronavirus. Which makes forging a path forward or a new plan next to impossible for many athletes.
“I think it’s uncertain and unknown because I don’t know how long races will be canceled,” marathoner Stephanie Bruce said of the virus’ potential long-term financial ramifications on athletes. “If it starts to go into the fall and cancels fall marathons and road races, that’s going to start impacting me.”
Bruce, 36, placed sixth at the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials on February 29, one of the last major sporting competitions to be held before coronavirus concerns cancelled or postponed everything from the NBA season to the Boston Marathon.
Her HOKA NAZ Elite teammate, Aliphine Tuliamuk, won the women’s race in 2:27:23 to make her first Olympic team. Molly Seidel and Sally Kipyego placed second and third to take the other two spots on the U.S. team.
Of the possibility that USATF would hold another Olympic Trials Marathon in 2021, Hazzard said only that they are considering all options.
Bruce and fellow marathoner Sara Hall, who dropped out of the marathon trials at mile 22, both planned to transition to 10k training in the hopes of making the Olympic team in that event at the U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials in June.
“I haven’t raced track for four years, I had no plan B outside of making the marathon team. I ‘burned the ships’ and was all-in on the marathon,” Hall, 36, said in an email over the weekend. “Not making the marathon team was the greatest heartbreak of my career, so you have to assess if you’re ready to put your heart out there and fully hope and believe again so soon.”
She said it’s been hard to move on from the Trials heartbreak without other races to look forward to. The Cherry Blossom 10-Miler in Washington, D.C., usually held every April, was on her calendar as a potential American record attempt. The race has since been canceled due to coronavirus containment efforts.
“It really helps after a big disappointment like the Trials to have another race to officially move forward, and without that it’s been hard to put the Trials behind me as thoroughly as I’d like.”
The race was also a potential payday.
“No one gets paid to run the Olympic Trials, so as a marathoner you take a hit financially there, and you’re not racing leading up to it because it’s the focus,” Hall said. “We all have things in our contract that we have to meet for it to continue, so that is hard to know if we will have the opportunity to do those and if not, what will happen.”
While some athletes had been hoping for a chance at redemption this spring, others have had to calm their excitement with the growing uncertainty. Bowerman Track Club’s Karissa Schweizer broke the American record in the 3k at Boston University in February. Her time of 8:25.70 made her the fifth-fastest woman in indoor history, and a favorite to make her first Olympic team in her specialty event, the 5k.
“[The record] feels so long ago,” she said in a phone interview on Sunday afternoon, “which stinks, because I had so much momentum behind me getting ready for outdoor season and now it’s like, ‘woah, did that even happen?’”
Schweizer, 23, and coach Jerry Schumacher were looking forward to the chance to race a fast 10k this spring.
“It’s difficult once you have momentum building to all of a sudden come to a halt,” she said. “I knew I had a breakthrough coming, I just didn’t know when it was going to be, so I’m at least grateful for that. Now I’m holding on to that hope and know I’m training for moments like that. I know there’s more to come in the outdoor season, whether it’s this coming season or whether it’s next year’s season.”
Allie Ostrander, a three-time NCAA steeplechase champion for Boise State, is also 23 years old and in her first Olympic cycle as a professional athlete after qualifying for the World Championships last fall.
“It’s hard right now because obviously the Olympics are something everyone’s been talking about for years,” Ostrander said in a phone interview on Sunday. “Not knowing whether they’re happening is on my mind a lot, although I’m trying not to focus on that… control the controllable, focus on the little things is what I am trying to do, but it’s so hard.”
Ostrander does know how fortunate she is, having seen first-hand the challenges people are facing with the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic. One of her Brooks Beasts teammates, Marta Freitas, has been stuck in her native Portugal due to travel restrictions. Another teammate is currently living with an immunocompromised parent.
“Watching all the races on my calendar—everything I planned to target this year—getting canceled, that was really hard that week to work up the motivation to even go run,” she said. “What am I training for right now? What is my purpose? Our purpose as professional runners is to race and represent the brand and that’s really hard without any races on the schedule. [But] I’ve shifted my perspective.”