Aquatics

Swimming Canada backs U.S. counterpart in pushing for Olympic postponement

Swimming Canada says it supports a call by USA Swimming to postpone this summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo.

National committees continue sticking by IOC in starting Games as scheduled

Canada's Penny Oleksiak is seen above competing at the 2018 Commonwealth Games. On Friday, Swimming Canada said it was backing its U.S. counterpart in pushing for the postponement of the 2020 Olympics. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Swimming Canada says it supports a call by USA Swimming to postpone this summer's Olympic Games in Tokyo.

In a letter sent Friday to Sarah Hirshland, chief executive officer of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, USA Swimming CEO Tim Hinchey said the outbreak of the coronavirus has caused "unimaginable disruptions" which calls into question the authenticity of a level playing field just months before the Olympics.

"It is with the burden of these serious concerns that we respectfully request that the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee advocate for the postponement of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 by one year," Hinchey wrote.

Later Friday, Swimming Canada said it was "very much aligned" with the points Hinchey raised.

"Telling athletes to prepare for an Olympic Games during a global pandemic raises serious issues," Swimming Canada CEO Ahmed El-Awadi said in a statement. "We hold the opinions of our brothers and sisters at USA Swimming in high regard and share many of the same concerns around health and safety. That includes the safety and well-being of our athletes — both physically and mentally — and the safety of the community at large.

"Each day that goes by without a decision creates more stress and anxiety for our athletes, who are worried not only about themselves but about their communities."

Susanne Lyons, chair of the USOPC, agreed with the position of the International Olympic Committee that its too early for drastic decisions related to the Tokyo Games.

"We'd concur with them to say we need more expert advice than we have today," Lyons said during a conference call. "And we don't have to make a decision. The games are four months from now."

The Canadian Olympic Committee also reiterated its support of the IOC's decision to wait before making any decisions.

Eugene Liang, high-performance director for Triathlon Canada, said the current global situation has created "an environment of haves and have-nots" when it comes to athlete training.

"Sooner than later is probably the number one thing that everyone is trying to push for," Liang said on the urgency to make a decision.

American Katie Ledecky competes in the TYR Pro Swim Series earlier on March. On Friday, USA Swimming pushed to postpone the Olympics, while the U.S. and Canadian national committees continued to back the IOC on the scheduled start date of July 24. (Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

Nic Coward, the chairman of UK Athletics in Britain, told BBC Sport that leaving the Olympic starting date unchanged "is creating so much pressure in the system. It now has to be addressed."

In theory, no national Olympic federation has more power to alter the shape of an Olympics than the USOPC, which brings 550 athletes and its billion-dollar broadcaster, NBC, to the show every two years. But after a long day of board meetings, the committee showed no appetite for using that leverage to push for more certainty, even as the number of COVID-19 cases continues to spike in the United States.

Lyons and CEO Sarah Hirshland said a lot of what has already been said from IOC president Thomas Bach, whose most recent interview in The New York Times reiterated that plans are going forward for a Tokyo Games, whether they start July 24 or some other time.

After the USA Swimming news, Hirshland and Lyons put out a joint statement, emphasizing the multiple moving parts that are influencing any decision from the IOC, and looking ahead to an important IOC meeting next week, at which leaders will receive feedback from countries.

"Rest assured we are making your concerns clearly known to them," the statement said.

While they press forward with plans, leaders in Italy, where the coronavirus has accounted for more than 3,400 fatalities, have pleaded with the IOC to change its stance.

Olympic committees in Latin America said athletes should be given the chance to qualify for the Tokyo Olympics right until the Games begin on July 24.

The presidents of Olympic committees in Argentina, Mexico and Paraguay told Reuters discussions with the IOC were ongoing about holding the qualifiers in May and June as well as using athletes' previous competition results.

"The qualifiers are a concern and in that sense it was agreed to analyze other types of qualifiers, such as using the Pan American Games in Lima," said Camilo Perez, president of the Paraguayan committee, referring to the 2019 tournament in Peru.

"And extending deadlines that would reach almost the date of the Games."

Athletes also urging postponement

A growing number of athletes are calling for more decisive action from Olympic leaders: "The most infuriating part of this whole thing is it feels like the IOC is going to do what they want, regardless of what the athletes think," U.S. Olympic silver-medal pole vaulter Sandi Morris tweeted late Thursday.

But there is also a contingent of less vocal athletes who are not speaking up as loudly on social media and "for whom this feels like their opportunity, their only opportunity," Hirshland said.

"It adds to the complication factor" in making a decision, Hirshland said.

Han Xiao, the chair of the athletes' advisory council, confirmed that and said it's why his group has not made any definitive statements encouraging a postponement.

"We are specifically asking for more transparency around the decision-making process, more information about what measures and conditions are being discussed, and less public emphasis on training and `business as usual,' which is putting athletes in a bad position," Han said.

Many athletes' training regimens have, in fact, disintegrated, as gyms and communal workout spaces around the country have been closed. The USOPC has closed its Olympic training centres to all but the 180 or so who live at them — and many in those groups have chosen to leave campus.

Hirshland said it needed to be clear to every elite and recreational athlete out there that "as Americans, the No. 1 priority needs to be health and safety," and not training.

Qualification altered beyond recognition

The USOPC has increased availability of mental and emotional counselling, as anxiety builds over what comes next. Around 190 of 550 spots on the U.S. team are scheduled to be handed out at for gymnastics, swimming and track at Olympic trials in June — all of which are in jeopardy.

Both Bach and the USOPC leadership have acknowledged the realities of a qualification process that is being altered beyond recognition. Hirshland says the federation is working with individual sports, both at the national and international levels, to adapt in the event the Olympics take place without a traditional qualifying structure.

She also said that unless the IOC makes some announcement changing the July 24 start date, it has to keep pushing forward as safely as it can with operational and logistical plans to stage the games for its athletes.

"Our priority and our obligation is to the athletes we serve," she said. "If the opportunity is available to them (to compete in the Olympics), we're not going to be the reason they don't have that opportunity. We will be there and we will be ready."

With files from The Associated Press, Reuters

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