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Prominent athletes slam IOC for risking athletes' health

Canada's Dick Pound, the International Olympic Committee's longest serving member, says it isn't ignoring the need to contemplate contingencies, but it isn't prepared to get "swept up in the immediacy of events going on as we speak.

Hockey great Hayley Wickenheiser calls plans to hold Games 'insensitive, irresponsible'

Dick Pound, the longest serving member of the International Olympic Committee, believes Tokyo preparations should continue until the World Health Organization issues a warning or prohibition of the event in relation to COVID-19. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP via Getty Images)

Canada's Dick Pound, the International Olympic Committee's longest serving member, says it isn't ignoring the need to contemplate contingencies or even a cancellation or postponement of this summer's Tokyo Olympics, but it isn't prepared to get "swept up in the immediacy of events going on as we speak."

"It's not like the Masters (postponed last week) or something like that, that takes place right now as we speak," Pound told CBC Sports. "And so we can kind of see how things develop to see whether there are more effective means to prevent the spread and to mitigate the lethality of it that we don't know yet."

"Until there is a warning or a prohibition coming from the World Health Organization (WHO) or government authorities, we think that we should continue to prepare," Pound said. "And hope that the pandemic is controlled and that it's not as lethal as people feared that it will be."

The Masters golf tournament, originally scheduled for April 9-12 in Augusta, Ga., was postponed indefinitely on Friday because of the outbreak.

With a little more than 100 days before the world is set to converge in Tokyo for the Summer Olympics, the IOC continues to insist that it's full steam ahead.

WATCH | Wickenheiser speaks against IOC's insistence on Tokyo preparation:

Hockey great Hayley Wickenheiser joins numerous prominent athletes who say the IOC's plan to continue Tokyo 2020 preparations as planned is reckless. 2:38

"The IOC remains fully committed to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, and with more than four months to go before the Games there is no need for any drastic decisions at this stage," it said in a statement released Tuesday. "The IOC encourages all athletes to continue to prepare for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 as best they can,"

Olympians critical of committee's declarations

Many current and former Olympians say the IOC is living in a fantasy world.

Canadian hockey great Hayley Wickenheiser, a member of the IOC's Athletes Commission and a six-time Olympian, had harsh words for the IOC on Tuesday, saying in a statement posted on Twitter that the current crisis is bigger than any Olympics.


 

"I think the IOC insisting this will move ahead with such conviction is insensitive and irresponsible given the state of humanity. We don't know what's happening in the next 24 hours let alone the next three months," Wickenheiser said.

"This is not about how things will be in four months. This is about how things are now," champion Greek pole vaulter Katerina Stefanidi posted on Twitter. "The IOC wants us to keep risking our health, our families' health and public health to train every day? You are putting us in danger right now, today, not in 4 months."

Canadian race walker Inaki Gomez had similar concerns.

When asked whether the Tokyo 2020 Games should be postponed, Gomez told CBC, "Yes. Postponement is the right approach."

"(This is) an example of an organization that is tone deaf to the situation," the 32-year-old Vancouver resident tweeted.

WATCH | Impact of COVID-19 on Tokyo 2020:

As of now the Games are still on, but is it only a matter of time until that changes? 4:15

Every day over the past week, as the global coronavirus pandemic tightens its grip, leagues have suspended their seasons and virtually every major global sporting event has either been cancelled or postponed.

So far the virus has infected almost 190,000 people and killed more than 7,500 worldwide.

The latest postponement is the French Open, the first of tennis's Grand Slams. It was slated to begin in Paris in late May, but this morning organizers pushed to a hopeful late September start date.

At around the same time, UEFA announced that the 24 team European Championship, slated to be held from June 11 to July 11, has been postponed until next summer.

But as daily life around the world grinds to a halt; as people are being told to stay in their homes and avoid large groups, there is one outlier: the International Olympic Committee.

Pound insists the IOC still has time on its side with the Games still months away. The opening ceremony is scheduled for July 24.

"All kinds of things can happen in that space of time. It's important not to get caught up in confusing motion with action."

The deputy head of Japan's Olympic committee, Kozo Tashima, above, tested positive for the coronavirus on Tuesday. (Shizuo Kambayashi/The Associated Press)

Even the Japanese public, who have been supportive of the Games, are growing uneasy. A recent poll reported that more than 70 per cent of respondents said the Olympics shouldn't go on as planned.

Many in the medical community echo these concerns. Professor Stephen Hoffman is the director of York University's Global Strategy Lab. He has also advised the WHO and the UN on global health issues.

"It's very unlikely that the Olympics are going to go ahead as scheduled," Hoffman told CBC Sports. "If the Olympics were happening today it would be cancelled. We know if it were next week it would be cancelled. If it's happening next month, it almost certainly would be cancelled. If it's happening four months from now, it's unlikely to happen in its current form."

Amidst growing pessimism, officials with the Canadian Olympic Committee are also still insisting the Games will go ahead as planned this summer.

The COC says its view hasn't changed from their statement released last week, where it said "plans remain unchanged" and that based on all available scientific information, it is "working towards a successful Tokyo 2020 Games."

Canada's chef de mission, former Olympian Marnie McBean, is encouraging athletes to be ready for Tokyo. McBean says that if it's not safe, Canada won't send athletes to Tokyo but she remains optimistic that won't be the case.

"I do believe it's possible," the three-time Olympic gold medallist told CBC Sports. "We are going to stay prepared and we're not turning out the lights and going to say, 'OK let's just pack it up.' Right now we're going to do everything we can to stay physically healthy to stay mentally healthy."

WATCH | Canada's chef de mission Marnie McBean addresses COVID-19 concerns:

Marnie McBean, Canada's Olympic chef de mission for the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games is advising athletes to prepare for the Olympics, but also be ready to adapt to schedule changes if necessary, due to the spread of COVID-19. 6:51

There is obviously lots at stake in ensuring the Olympic flame is successfully lit in July. Japan has spent an estimated $28 billion US preparing for the Games. And the IOC made more than $4 billion in revenue in the last four-year Olympic cycle from broadcast rights. NBC, the Games' biggest broadcast partner, has reportedly sold more than $1 billion in advertising.

The IOC could delay the Games for a year, but Pound says that would be difficult. Venues are booked for a specific period and may be contractually tied up beyond the Games. There are also political concerns as the Japanese government has been under increased pressure for its handling of the coronavirus, while at the same time insisting the Games will proceed as planned.

"Does the Japanese government want to do this? Is it able to hold the whole project together for an additional year?" says Pound.

Against this backdrop, Pound insists there are still ways for the Games to proceed this summer if organizers and IOC take steps to mitigate risk. Pound points out that 99 per cent of the world consumes the Olympics on television, so severely limiting or screening crowds in Japan could be an option.

"People coming into the stadium can certainly be tested. Anybody with a temperature, for example, could be denied access and maybe you fill every other seat rather than having everyone packed into a crowded stadium."

On Sunday, John Coates, chairman of the Tokyo coordination commission, said there is no May deadline to cancel the Tokyo Games. (Koji Sasahara/The Associated Press)

Hoffman says if the pandemic partially subsides in the coming months and if the IOC insists on proceeding, he would go much further and recommend a scenario that excludes everyone but the athletes.

"Athletes would come together but not their coaches and not their family and friends and not tourists and other spectators," Hoffman says. "And you can imagine those athletes potentially volunteering to go into a self-quarantine both upon entry to Japan as well as upon return to their home countries."

McBean says an Olympics held without spectators would be a shame but not the end of the world.

"Ultimately the athletes show up to face off against competitors. The crowd is an amazing resource for us,  but we train every day to be our best in anonymity with nobody around," McBean says. "It's a wonderful relationship between the athletes and the spectators. But sport is not between athletes and spectators."

Pound acknowledges that somebody has to make a call soon, but won't say exactly when. He says many IOC members are former Olympians and understand the anxiety of preparing to perform on the world's biggest stage.

Pound insists the IOC won't jeopardize athletes' health and if risks can be contained and public health officials give the green light, they will proceed.

"There may be some overreactions out there now and you've got to be careful that you don't become subject to them. But on the other hand you can't close your eyes to the possibility that this will be not contained sufficiently to justify going forward."

About the Author

Jamie Strashin is a native Torontonian whose latest stop is the CBC Sports department. Before, he spent 15 years covering everything from city hall to courts and breaking news as a reporter for CBC News. He has also worked in Brandon, Man., and Calgary. Follow him on Twitter @StrashinCBC

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