ATHENS (Reuters) – The International Olympic Committee is facing its strongest headwinds in decades as it briefed national committees on Wednesday on the state of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics amid the coronavirus pandemic, with voices of dissent growing louder.
The IOC has remained committed to staging the Tokyo Games as planned from July 24-Aug. 9, saying on Tuesday after a meeting with international sports federations that measures against the virus were delivering results.
The coronavirus has so far killed more than 8,200 people and infected over 200,000, with the epicenter now in Europe.
The Olympic body has refused to publicly consider cancellation or postponement as possible options, even as other major events including soccer’s Euro 2020 and Copa America and the French Open tennis grand slam announced postponements on Tuesday.
The virus has also wreaked havoc with Olympic qualification tournaments, with athletes struggling to train, travel or compete and many pre-Games qualifiers canceled or postponed.
Tokyo is set to host some 11,000 athletes and 57% have already earned their spot at the Games. The remaining 43% will clinch their place through modified qualifiers, or previous performances based on ranking.
Under the current exceptional circumstances, the IOC said, solutions needed to be found that were appropriate, though they might not be ideal for all athletes.
“This is an exceptional situation which requires exceptional solutions,” the IOC told Reuters in a statement on Wednesday.
“The IOC is committed to finding a solution with the least negative impact for the athletes, while protecting the integrity of the competition and the athletes’ health.
“No solution will be ideal in this situation, and this is why we are counting on the responsibility and solidarity of the athletes.”
The IOC got the backing from Panam Sports, the organization representing 41 national Olympic Committees in the Americas.
“The Panam Sports family unanimously supports the IOC with all the measures taken… to address the issues facing the NOCs and athletes in the current qualification opportunities,” Panam Sports President Neven Ilic said after the briefing via conference call on Wednesday.
“The athletes of the Americas are facing issues to complete their usual training schedules and take part in competitions.”
According to sources with direct knowledge of the conference call, some national Olympic committees (NOCs), especially from countries severely affected by the virus, said they fully supported the IOC in its effort to host the Games as planned but could not wait indefinitely to find out what will happen.
The source said some NOC heads expressed their concern as their athletes are unable to train due to restrictions for the virus and were also struggling with qualifiers.
IOC member Hayley Wickenheiser called the decision to proceed with the Games “insensitive and irresponsible” in the most vocal attack on the Olympic body since President Thomas Bach took over in 2013.
Wickenheiser, who competed in five Winter Games in ice hockey and at the 2000 Summer Olympics in softball, said continuing with the Games as planned ignored the challenges posed by the coronavirus pandemic.
“This crisis is bigger than even the Olympics,” Wickenheiser said in a statement on Twitter. “Athletes can’t train. Attendees can’t travel plan. Sponsors and marketers can’t market with a degree of sensitivity.
“I think the IOC insisting this will move ahead, with such conviction, is insensitive and irresponsible given the state of humanity.”
She is not alone.
Several athletes, including reigning Olympic pole vault champion Katerina Stefanidi, said the IOC decision was putting athletes’ health at risk, urging them to train as normal when entire countries have shut down to contain the virus spread.
“There is no postponement, no cancellation. But it (the IOC) is putting us at risk,” Stefanidi said in an interview with Reuters.
“We all want Tokyo to happen but what is the Plan B if it does not happen?
“Knowing about a possible option has a major effect on my training because I may be taking risks now that I would not take if I knew there was also the possibility of a Plan B.”
Editing by Peter Rutherford and Christian Radnedge and Pritha Sarkar