The complicated path back to normalcy for 11,000 Olympic hopefuls

Close your eyes and you can picture it quite easily, even amid the chaos of this unimaginable time. Under a dark midsummer night, 68,000 people, from all corners of the globe, standing in unison at Japan’s new National Stadium. Eleven thousand elite athletes marching on the track below, corralled behind their national flag, smiling and waving to a worldwide television audience.

And at the center of it all, standing beneath the Olympic flame, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, sharing a simple, easily translatable message: Welcome back.

This, of course, is the Olympic dream. The belief that in the wake of Tuesday’s news that the 2020 Summer Olympics would be postponed a year, their return will reunite the world in the aftermath of COVID-19.

But the path from here to there is a complicated one. Postponing the Olympics a year is a far more difficult task than pausing the NBA season or rescheduling the 2020 European soccer championships. It’s figuring out equitable solutions for 11,000 athletes from 206 different countries. It’s reorganizing 200,000 volunteers. It’s assuring the safety, enjoyment and entertainment of 4.5 million ticket holders watching 46 different sports in 42 different venues.

Few would argue Tuesday’s decision was the wrong one. And sure, there are far greater global concerns right now than the ability of Olympic athletes to compete. But in Olympic circles, as much as Tuesday’s news brought clarity for athletes wrestling with whether to train or stay home, it also brought an encyclopedia’s worth of new questions. The majority of which, at least for now, come with the same answer: TBD.

“It almost feels like a wasted year. Like it didn’t even happen,” said two-time Olympic wrestler and 2012 gold medalist Jordan Burroughs. “There is just so much up in the air, shoved to the back burner.”

Jordan Burroughs is disappointed the Olympics won’t go on as planned this year, but remains optimistic that they will be something special in 2021. Feng Li/Getty Images

Seventy-six Americans already qualified for Tokyo 2020 before Tuesday’s announcement. During a conference call last week with U.S. Olympic athletes, Burroughs said an athlete asked if those qualifications would hold for 2021. While United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee leaders said they likely would, the decision was far from final.

“And imagine being an Olympian a whole year in advance,” Burroughs said. “What does that do to your willpower and your fire and willingness to train? And for everyone else, when are trials? How do you qualify? There are just so many uncertainties. But it’s not anyone’s fault.”

After swimmer Caeleb Dressel won six gold medals and a record eight overall medals at the 2019 FINA World Championships, many pegged him a likely superstar at the Tokyo Games. The 23-year-old admitted Tuesday it was a bit uncomfortable, given the state of things in the world right now, that people were checking in on how he was handling the news.

“I understand the severity,” he said. “This is life and death. This is bigger than sports. Humanity should go before anybody’s job or swim meet or anything. It should not be a priority in anyone’s head right now that ‘Caeleb can’t swim this year.’ Are you kidding?”

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Dressel said he had the best training month of his life in January and plans to continue pushing himself physically while taking the necessary precautions to ensure his safety as well as that of others around him.

“I don’t want to see this as an opportunity to become weak,” he said. “This is going to make or break a lot of people. This is where everyone’s guard is going to be down and it’s going to be easy to find that excuse that you don’t want to do the core work or you don’t want to lift in your garage or whatever. The way I look at it this is an extra year to prepare myself physically, emotionally, spiritually. If I keep talking about how much I love swimming, it shouldn’t matter that it’s been moved a year. This is my obsession. This is what I do.”

Perhaps no one understands Olympic preparation better than Michael Phelps, the most decorated Olympian of all time. Phelps, who competed in each of the past five Olympic Games, said he was unsure how he would have handled such a postponement were he still competing today.

“This close to Olympic trials? This close to the Games? You’re on autopilot. The work is done. There is nothing you can do to make yourself swim faster between now and the Olympics. I’d be tapering, working technique, all the small stuff.

No matter the circumstances, Nathan Adrian believes in the resolve of the American Olympians. Clive Rose/Getty Images

“I knew what I needed to do and at what time I needed to do it to get ready. Now you almost throw your arms up in the air and have no idea what to do. It’s completely uncharted waters.”

Whenever the Games begin, the makeup of the U.S. team will undoubtedly be far different than the group that would have donned the red, white and blue this summer. There are older athletes who will retire, deciding not to put their body through the grind for another year, and younger athletes who will find the Olympic window suddenly open.

Olympic historian Bill Mallon noted on Twitter on Tuesday that between the 1992 and 1994 Winter Games — the only time in modern Olympic history that the gap between Games was less than four years — only 42% of the athletes qualified for both Games. The average number of repeat Olympians during the typical four-year gap between Games is 27%. Mallon estimated that with a one-year postponement, around 50% to 60% of the athletes would still be able to qualify. That’s potentially two out of five athletes whose Olympic dream might have died Tuesday.

“It’s hard. No doubt,” said five-time Olympic gold medalist Nathan Adrian, 31, who this summer was hoping to make his fourth Olympic team. “But that’s sort of the name of the game if you will. That’s what makes Team USA so strong. It’s so competitive to get on those teams.”

When Adrian returned from the Rio 2016 Games for his fall meeting with coach Dave Durden, he found four massive whiteboards covered in the yearlong plans for 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020. A testicular cancer diagnosis in January of 2019, from which he has since recovered, complicated those plans. Now it’s back to the drawing board again.

More than 11,000 athletes from 206 different countries need to figure out how to deal with the fallout of the Olympics postponement. CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images)

“It’s not just as simple as saying, ‘You get another year to train you’re going to be that much better,'” Adrian said. “We were starting to hit our stride, starting to put up some really good times. Now, when I hear one more year, my automatic reaction is to deal with all of that later. I think a lot of us need a little emotional, mental break.”

Beyond what effect Tuesday’s decision will have on performance, there are potentially significant financial issues as well. Many Olympic athletes live paycheck to paycheck, counting on stipends from the USOPC and corporate sponsorships to help support them while training. With the U.S. in an economic downturn, will corporations be willing to extend those sponsorships an additional year? Will they argue that since the Games were not held the obligations in the contract were not upheld?

“You worry this will ruin a lot of people’s dreams,” Burroughs said. “A lot of these companies have invested in these athletes and their teams. Now there is no Olympics for a year. You wonder what’s going to happen.”

Said one prominent sports agent, who works with Olympic athletes: “You look at what’s happening with the economy right now, every business is going to be impacted one way or another. What does that mean for marketing budgets and people investing in Olympic athletes?”

At this point, nobody really knows. Athletes are just trying to process it all during the strangest of times.

“Just because the date has changed doesn’t mean our goals have,” two-time Olympic swimmer Allison Schmitt said. “For now, we just need to support each other and be there for whatever emotions people have. And understand that every one of those emotions is valid.”

Added Phelps: “Ultimately, you just need to focus on what you can control and not worry about anything else. That’s something we all should be doing right now.”

But even that’s easier said than done. Consider the case of Burroughs, indefinitely locked out of his training gym like so many other Olympic athletes, riding a Peloton bike at home to try to stay in shape. Burroughs looked at the screen saver on his iPhone this week and wondered if he should change the inspirational message he wrote for himself:

Discipline. Focus. Effort. Faith. 2020 Olympic Champion.

“What does the next year look like? I have no idea,” Burroughs said. “I don’t know if any of us do. Maybe this is a year of sitting in the house, social distancing, quarantining and just riding the bike. Maybe next year my legs are going to be huge. Who knows?

“But I do know this: This has the opportunity to be the most special Olympic Games of all time. I’m not sure any country can do that more seamlessly than Japan. So really, that’s my hope.”

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