Athletes begin taking IOC to task over Tokyo 2020 stance

By Liam Morgan
THE International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) steadfast refusal to contemplate Tokyo 2020 not taking place as planned has been the subject of understandable ridicule.
As European countries enter lockdown and as the global sports calendar, including Olympic qualifiers, gets decimated further day by day because of growing fears over the coronavirus pandemic, the IOC continues to insist the Games will go ahead.
In some ways, the IOC’s stance is sensible. Even experts from across the world are not entirely certain as to what happens next and the situation is evolving by the hour, particularly in Europe. There are also still 18 weeks until the Olympic Games are due to open in Tokyo on July 24.
But instead of scaling back the rhetoric and ramping up the humility, the organisation has dismissed speculation of a cancellation or postponement as “counter-productive” and told athletes to carry on as normal, despite that being impossible in countries worst affected by the virus.
It is little wonder, then, that several athletes have criticised the way in which the IOC has handled the crisis in recent days.
Following a conference call with over 200 athlete representatives yesterday, IOC President Thomas Bach claimed the body would “keep acting in a responsible way that is in the interest of the athletes”.
IOC Athletes’ Commission chair Kirsty Coventry rarely disagrees or questions the organisation in public and was not about to change that yesterday, telling athletes to “keep doing what they are doing”.
All of this while training centres are closing their doors for an indefinite period and an increasing number of countries are telling people to stay in their homes to prevent the spread of the virus, while qualification in some sports is in tatters – a subject I covered in a piece a couple of weeks ago.
IOC member Hayley Wickenheiser broke free of the shackles placed on anyone who becomes part of the organisation earlier this week when she labelled the IOC’s insistence the Olympics will go ahead as planned as “irresponsible”.
Olympic pole vault champion Katerina Stefanidi echoed Wickenheiser’s comments and went a step further, accusing the IOC of putting athletes “at risk” by urging them to keep calm and carry on.
Several other athletes, from Olympic gold medallists to those aiming to make their debut at the Games at Tokyo 2020, have followed suit, including Britain’s four-time Olympic champion Sir Matthew Pinsent, who offered one of the most stinging ripostes when describing Bach’s response as “tone-deaf”.
Somalian boxing star Ramla Ali is among those to have backed Wickenheiser. “I agree with what she said,” Ali told insidethegames.
“It is obviously positive that the IOC are trying to lift everyone’s morale by saying no changes are planned but that’s just not practical advice.
“I can’t find any gyms in London that are staying open after today, nor can I find any sparring which is basically the main essential to training in boxing.
“I had a warm-up tournament planned, booked and paid for, which is cancelled along with all other warm-up comps.
“My qualifiers in May in Paris have been cancelled with no date or location of rescheduling at the moment. Basically it’s impossible to train properly for both the qualifiers and the Games.”

Somalian boxer Ramla Ali, red, said the advice from the IOC had been “impractical” ©Getty Images
Qualification remains a pressing issue for dozens of sports on the Olympic programme, with numerous events being cancelled or postponed and, while there is time for federations to devise solutions to the problem, athletes are questioning their ability to live up to Bach’s promise of fairness.
“I don’t think qualifying can possibly be fair at this point,” Canadian race walker Evan Dunfee, a bronze medallist at the 2019 World Championships, tells insidethegames.
“But I don’t think the IOC cares about that. They want their key superstars there. And otherwise they don’t care who or how they qualify or if it’s fair.
“It just adds, in my mind at least, additional support to the notion that they don’t care about athletes, or at least not as their main priority.”
Dunfee, a vocal critic of the IOC’s decision to move race walks and marathons at this year’s Games from Tokyo to Sapporo, said athletes had a duty to follow Government advice owing to their prominent status.
“Athletes are nothing if not role models (at least in many Olympic sports, I for example know my value isn’t in entertainment!) and if we are out there trying to carry on life as normal and breaking these orders put in place by several Governments around the world then it doesn’t make us good role models, it basically makes us worthless, in my mind,” the Canadian added.
“We should be setting the examples, helping modelling good behaviours in these times.”
It is worth pointing out that there are some athletes – including French athletics star Renaud Lavillenie and recently-retired biathlete Martin Fourcade – who have expressed support for the IOC taking its time before deciding on a possible postponement or cancellation of Tokyo 2020 because of the COVID-19 outbreak.
While the frustration other athletes have expressed is understandable, postponing the Games – which was not discussed on conference calls the IOC held with various parties this week, according to those with knowledge of the situation – is far easier said than done. A delay of one year to 2021, which a fair few are starting to believe is the correct course of action, would have far-reaching consequences.
The Olympic Games are an event like no other in the world and moving them would create ripple effects which could last many a year.
Aside from the obvious impact on the IOC’s revenue, nearly 75 per cent of which derives from Olympic broadcasting rights, the sporting calendar would essentially have to be ripped up and redrawn, while thousands are relying on the event going ahead for their own personal income.
And what would happen to World Championships scheduled for 2021? If they have to be postponed themselves to create space for the Olympics, what would that mean for federations who rely on money generated from their own flagship events outside of the Games to survive?
What athletes who have spoken out want is clarity. They want to be assured that the IOC will do what many claim it often fails to do – protect their interests.
Unfortunately for those competitors, the IOC does not seem to have the answers.