Hours after U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee officials said they are preparing for the Tokyo Games to go ahead as scheduled this July, USA Swimming, arguably the most influential sport national governing body in the country, called for the Games to be postponed until next year because of the novel coronavirus outbreak.
In an open letter addressed to USOPC chief executive Sarah Hirshland, USA Swimming CEO Tim Hinchey wrote Friday, "The right and responsible thing to do is to prioritize everyone's health and safety and appropriately recognize the toll this global pandemic is taking on athletic preparations."
Hinchey concluded by writing, "There are no perfect answers, and this will not be easy; however, it is a solution that provides a concrete path forward and allows all athletes to prepare for a safe and successful Olympic Games in 2021."
The USOPC did not immediately respond to a request to comment on Hinchey's letter. Earlier in the day, USOPC officials said they have not expressed a preference for postponement nor shared any sort of deadline for the International Olympic Committee to make a decision.
"I think we would concur with them that we need more expert advice and information than we have today to make a decision," Susanne Lyons, USOPC's board chair, said on a conference call with reporters Friday. "And we don't have to make a decision. Our Games are not next week or two weeks from now. They're four months from now. I think a lot may change in that time period. So we are affording the IOC the opportunity to gather that information and expert advice, and at this point in time we do not feel it's necessary for us to insist that they make a decision."
Greg Meehan, head coach of U.S. women's swimming team and women's coach at Stanford, said coaches and swimmers supported Hinchey's statement.
"Swimmers are routine-driven and training is very much a part of their routine," Meehan said in a phone interview. "In a lot of ways, the consistency of our schedule is therapeutic. I worry about the stress and anxiousness right now of our best athletes with the uncertainty of where they're going to be from day to day, knowing that they would potentially have to compete in an Olympics when they haven't been able to prepare as maybe some others around the world have."
"I think there's an underlying mental health concern here for our best athletes and it's put them in a place where postponement makes sense."
Meehan said coaches and swimmers have spent the past few days discussing options to maintain training schedules before "kind of realizing that options were getting eliminated by the hour as pools around the country closed - with the understanding they aren't going to be opening up anytime soon. That's the reality. I think we all know that."
Hirshland said the USOPC is planning for different options, postponements of various lengths among them.
"We're doing an enormous amount of scenario-planning and trying to be as prepared as we can be for any variety of potential outcomes," Hirshland said. "None of us can be certain what is to come, but we're doing what we can to try prepare ourselves."
She said the USOPC has shared some of the concerns that have been expressed by American athletes about competing in Tokyo this summer, adding, "I can assure you there's no circumstance when the USOPC would send our athletes into harm's way if we did not believe it was safe."
The USOPC remarks come as athletes have started to publicly voice their reservations about competing this summer and pressure has increased on the IOC to reconsider holding the Tokyo Games on schedule. One day earlier, a member of the Japanese Olympic Committee became the first executive committee board member to break with the IOC in calling for a postponement. Kaori Yamaguchi, a bronze medalist in judo at the 1988 Olympics, said Thursday that the IOC is "putting athletes at risk."
Olympic hopefuls from several countries have expressed similar concerns about the safety of a Summer Olympics and have said their training has already been compromised. Earlier in the week, gymnast Colin Van Wicklen became the first American vying for a spot on U.S. Olympic team to publicly urge a postponement, posting on Twitter, "We must put the pressure on the IOC to do the right thing."
“I don’t think it’s fair to the athletes who have dedicated their whole life to trying to make an Olympic team to have to deal with this,” Van Wicklen told The Washington Post in a phone interview Thursday. “We deserve to be at our best, to give it our best shot and have the best opportunity to make an Olympic team and have our dreams come true.”
The IOC hasn't wavered in its intention to stage the Tokyo Games on schedule and has urged athletes to continue training with the July 24 start date in mind. But as cities around the world have experienced heightened restrictions, athletes are having an increasingly difficult time finding the gymnasiums, swimming pools and practice facilities needed for training.
"There are just a lot of mixed statements right now, and that really messes with your head," Van Wicklen said. "You're trying to do the best for yourself being safe and stay healthy. You want to listen to what everybody is telling you: Stay inside, don't go anywhere if you don't need to. But you also hear: 'Hey, the Olympics are still happening. Athletes need to prepare.' "
The IOC held phone conversations with Olympic stakeholders and issued a communique Tuesday saying, "The IOC encourages all athletes to continue to prepare for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 as best they can."
Inaki Gomez, a retired Olympic race walker from Canada, called the message "imprudent & reckless."
"Particularly in countries where lockdown is in effect," he posted on Twitter. "Message should be self-isolate or limit unnecessary contact, & we can worry about sport once situation has been contained."
American long-distance runner Kara Goucher, a two-time Olympian, tweeted at the IOC on Thursday night, urging a postponement. She said in a telephone interview Friday that athletes have been forced into an untenable position.
"The people in charge should be making the right decision for them," she said. "Right now, they can't find facilities to train in, they've put themselves at risk by going out and training and trying to find places, drug testing has been all but suspended in most countries, competitions are canceled everywhere. And we're expecting them to stay in tiptop shape. To me, it's so crazy. And it's putting money and profits above the health of athletes."
USOPC officials have been hearing all week of the many challenges American athletes have faced in recent days, but Hirshland said the overall feedback has been varied. "The environment even in different parts of our country is quite different," she said. "The reaction from people and what they're feeling is quite different. And we're seeing that in the feedback we're getting from the athlete community for certain."
While some athletes have said training amid the covid-19 outbreak compromises their health and safety, Lyons stressed, "Our No. 1 priority needs to be our health and safety and containment of this virus, period, full stop.
"That should not conflict in any way with the decision someone is making about their training," she added.
IOC President Thomas Bach participated in a call this week with 220 athlete representatives around the world. Kirsty Coventry, chair of the IOC Athletes' Commission, posted a video to Twitter afterward in which she noted that athletes have voiced concerns for health and safety, as well as the uncertainty cast on the Tokyo qualification process.
"We just implore you to keep doing what you're doing," said the retired swimmer from Zimbabwe. "We heard that athletes did want to see the Games happen in July, and that's really promising. But we know the landscape is ever-changing."
Her summary was not well-received in all corners. Urging an Olympic postponement, Brazilian swimmer Bruno Fratus responded: "I'd urge you to reconsider and consult with some other athletes around the world. Not sure if you're aware of the many athletes like myself incapable of even training.
"Also, the advice of 'keep doing what you're doing' seems disconnected with reality when we have world leaders daily on television asking people to stay home and isolate ourselves."
Van Wicklen said he started to realize that holding an Olympics this summer would be unfair as he struggled to find training space this week. He drove from Oklahoma to Houston and back to Oklahoma. When he was at a gym Wednesday, Van Wicklen said, "I was kind of looking around the gym saying: 'There's no way I can train at this level, the level that I need to, here. This is not going to work.' "
With all competitive events canceled through at least May 10 and his training now compromised, Van Wicklen estimates it will take at least a month to get "even close to where we were before this all started."
“That leaves us with a month or even maybe less than a month before we have to go try and qualify to an Olympic team,” he said. “That’s not how it should be.”