(Reuters) - USA Swimming called for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics to be postponed for a year on Friday, joining a chorus of growing international concern about the safety of the Games amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The heavily decorated swimming program expressed its concerns in a letter to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, who had earlier said athletes should continue their preparations for the Games.
“We have watched our athletes’ worlds be turned upside down,” USA Swimming CEO Tim Hinchey wrote.
“The right and responsible thing to do is to prioritise everyone’s health and safety and appropriately recognise the toll this global pandemic is taking on athletic preparations.”
The coronavirus outbreak has infected over 250,000 people and killed more than 10,000, bringing global sport to a virtual standstill.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has pressed on during the health crisis, saying the July 24-Aug. 9 spectacle will go ahead as scheduled.
Responding to the USA Swimming letter, the USOPC said it understands the stress swimmers are under due to the uncertainty created by the outbreak, but noted there were other athletes that want every opportunity to compete in Tokyo.
“We have also heard from athletes that they want the Olympic and Paralympic community to be very intentional about the path forward – and to ensure that we aren’t prematurely taking away any athletes’ opportunity to compete in the Olympic and Paralympic Games until we have better clarity,” said USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland and Chair Susanne Lyons in a joint-statement.
“The USOPC is in constant communication with senior leadership of the IOC and IPC (International Paralympic Committee).
“They believe that it is premature to make a final call on the date of the Games and we believe that we should afford them the opportunity to gather more data and expert advice before insisting that a decision be made.”
USA Swimming’s letter followed a similar request from UK Athletics chairman Nic Coward, who earlier on Friday said the Tokyo Olympics should be called off to spare athletes the stress of trying to train in the middle of the pandemic.
Colombia’s Olympic Committee also said the Games should be postponed if the epidemic is not under control soon.
The USOPC has so far backed the IOC’s position and said it will continue to do so as long it is satisfied health and safety is not compromised, telling athletes to continue to train as long as they can do so in a safe environment.
“We are very clearly encouraging everyone in our community to put their safety and the safety of those in their communities and those around them first,” Hirshland said in a conference call following a USOPC board meeting.
“We’re also asking athletes if it is available to them and in a safe and in an appropriate environment, based on local health official guidance, to continue to do what they can to prepare themselves for competition.”
Underscoring the difficulty athletes face in finding safe and suitable facilities, Hirshland confirmed that both USOPC training centres, including the one where its headquarters is located in Colorado Springs, have been closed due to the outbreak.
Hirshland conceded the outbreak has caused significant disruption to Olympic qualifying events, which she said was likely to continue.
Team trials for U.S. swimming in Omaha (June 21-28), gymnastics in St. Louis (June 25-28) and track and field in Eugene, Oregon (June 21-28) have so far not been impacted, but many others including wrestling, rowing, canoe and shooting have been postponed.
“Our teams are working very hard to partner with each sport and national governing body and the athletes from those sports to determine how to adapt team selection and selection criteria so we are prepared for a variety of potential outcomes,” said Hirshland.
As with most sports impacted by the coronavirus, the USOPC is running through various scenarios.
So far no specific deadline for making a decision on whether or not to take part in the Tokyo Games has been put in place and the USOPC said it will take guidance from the medical community.
“We are trying to be as prepared as we can be for any variety of potential outcomes,” said Hirshland. “We are focused on Tokyo 2020 and will continue to be. As long as that possibility stays ahead of us we will do everything we can to not give up on our athletes.
“Our priority, and frankly we view it as our obligation to the athletes we serve, is to be ready if there is an opportunity for them.
“We are not going to be the reason they don’t have that opportunity. We will be there and we will be ready.”
Reporting by Amy Tennery in New York and Steve Keating in Toronto. Editing by Christian Radnedge and Toby Davis