The International Olympic Committee answers to no one but often feels a deep kinship with the highest bidder, above or below the table. It didn’t come as a surprise, then, that the grand pooh-bahs at the IOC would be the last people associated with sports to shut down operations because of the coronavirus pandemic. There are billions and billions of dollars associated with putting on an Olympics. A billion delayed is a billion burned.
But under worldwide pressure, that august body caved in Monday, postponing the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo. IOC member Dick Pound told USA Today the event likely would be moved to 2021. It was an impressive turnaround from Sunday, when officials announced they would need a month to analyze the situation. A month? Were they kidding? In this time of dark, fast-moving developments, a month is the equivalent of five years.
The postponement is awful for the athletes, who put everything they have into the chance to compete in an event that happens every four years. For some, a one-year delay will end their dreams. But the situation now is untenable. With many parts of the world sheltering in place because of the virus, competitors have found it almost impossible to train at a high level and to train safely. Almost as frustrating, the powers that be had given them little guidance.
That wasn’t the worst part of the IOC’s foot-dragging. No one is sure when the virus will be done doing its damage. Officials clearly were trying to decide if it would be safe enough for athletes to trade sweat with each other by July 24, the start of the Games. Would spectators be in danger by sitting shoulder to shoulder? Lest you think a concern for humankind was the driving force in the IOC’s analysis, know that the thought of money fuels almost everything the organization does. There are corporate sponsors to appease and NBC, which holds the TV broadcast rights to the Games, to answer to. Somebody must have decided that collapsing athletes would be a bad look and bad business.
Canada announced Sunday night that its athletes would not be competing in the Olympics in July because of the coronavirus outbreak. Officials there understood that it was unrealistic and dangerous to ask citizens to risk their health by going to Tokyo.
I’d like to think that Canada shamed the IOC into its decision Monday, but having dealt with these people at eight Olympics, I know that they are incapable of shame. More likely, IOC officials realized that Canada would have lots of company soon. The inevitable hit them, and then they shed some tears over their caviar.
Elite athletes are born to compete. It says something that some of the people most physically and emotionally tied to the idea of Olympic competition had been saying for the last few weeks that the Games needed to be shut down. They knew they wouldn’t be adequately trained, and they knew there was the possibility of getting sick. That should have told anyone with ears that it was time to postpone the Olympics.
“I’ve had so many calls with athletes who have been in tears trying to train for their ultimate dream but not wanting to jeopardize their health,” American hurdler Lolo Jones wrote on Twitter. “This was the right thing to do. May the world heal.”
In a letter to athletes on Sunday, IOC president Thomas Bach wrote that “human lives take precedence over everything, including the staging of the Games. The IOC wants to be part of the solution.’’
It might seem harsh to question the sincerity of Olympic officials when it comes to something as serious as the pandemic. No one in his or her right mind would wish the virus on anybody, and of course the IOC cares about athletes. But you wouldn’t trust these people with your retirement money. Or your lunch money.
It’s hard to forget the shenanigans of the past. Six IOC members were expelled in 1998 for accepting gifts from Salt Lake Organizing Committee officials. Those gifts included cash, land-purchase agreements, tuition, campaign donations and charitable donations. Or, as the IOC likes to put it: Oops!
We in Chicago felt the business end of the IOC’s mysterious practices in 2009, when the city was knocked out of the running for the 2016 Olympics in the first round of voting. Theories abound for the failed bid, including anti-Americanism and an Asian voting bloc pushing for Tokyo. Surely there were some “incentives” involved, too. In the end, Rio de Janeiro won.
The Rio Games turned out to be a logistical, political and economic mess, but the IOC got what it always wants: money. That’s what made Monday’s news about the 2020 Olympics so surprising. IOC members were going to let a little pandemic get in the way of profit? Quick, somebody take their temperatures.