(Reuters) – The decision to delay the Tokyo Olympics by a year is sparking both anxiety and hope among the world’s athletes as the coronavirus pandemic adds to confusion over who might qualify for the Games, now in 2021.
Legal experts warned of a Pandora’s Box of messy legal challenges from athletes in the lead-up to the Games, as sporting bodies consider tweaks to qualifying criteria that could impact who gets in and who misses out.
“I’m sure there will be additions/subtractions,” said USA Basketball chief communications officer Craig Miller about the names on America’s ‘Dream Team’ list.
“For example, I could see Zion Williamson being considered if he stays healthy and continues his strong play,” he said of the first overall pick in the 2019 National Basketball Association draft who plays for the New Orleans Pelicans.
The International Golf Federation will use world rankings to determine the Olympic field. Those could look very different in a year from now, potentially opening the door for Tiger Woods, who missed much of the season with back issues.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has said that the 57% of athletes who had already qualified for the 2020 Tokyo Games would keep their spots in 2021.
But after first enduring the emotional grinder of not knowing if the 2020 Games would go ahead as planned or how to prepare, for the nearly 5,000 athletes who have not earned their place the cancellation of the global sports calendar threatens to disrupt the qualifying process late into the year and beyond.
With pools, tracks and training facilities shut, along with widespread self-isolation orders around the globe, many sports federations were unable to provide a clear picture of what qualifying will look like.
Some issues are logistical, like those facing USA swimming and gymnastics, which may have to secure new Olympic trial venues.
Others are less straightforward.
To book a ticket to Tokyo, many athletes must still meet Olympic standards and/or accumulate enough ranking points in qualifying competitions to be eligible for selection. But the opportunities to do so could be severely limited by the pandemic.
That, warns attorney Howard Jacobs, who has represented cyclist Floyd Landis and sprinters Marion Jones and Tim Montgomery, could lead to a slew of litigation.
“There are a number of ways that challenges can be brought,” Jacobs told Reuters.
“Let’s say a U.S. athlete who qualified in the marathon at the Olympic trials in February… say they don’t run the standard under the new window,” he said. “Potentially they would be out. I would think they would now have the ability to challenge that in the Court of Arbitration for Sport.”
The IOC appears to have offered already qualified athletes some protection. But National Olympic Committees (NOC) and sporting federations indicated to Reuters that that is not the IOC’s decision to make.
The assurances the IOC can offer are primarily connected to the number of spots allocated for each sport. Not who will fill them.
“Each nation (member federation) has the right to name its team members according to its own manner and procedures – provided that the athletes selected have met World Athletics and IOC qualifying standards and regulations,” U.S. Track and Field said in email, adding that it is just beginning to weigh the factors in what a revamped qualifying system will look like.
The IOC was asked by Reuters if it would force NOCs to honor its guarantee but did not receive a response.
South Korea and Australia have called on FIFA, world soccer’s governing body, to raise the under-23 age limit for the men’s Olympic tournament by a year so players who helped their squads qualify for the Tokyo Games can remain eligible.
The postponement will also allow teams more time to evaluate talent and strategy, meaning that in the cut-throat pursuit of medals some athletes could suddenly find themselves on the outside.
With the prospect of a possible retooling of Olympic rosters, some athletes have warned selectors not to mess with those who have secured Olympic spots.
American marathoner Des Linden is a two-time Olympian who finished fourth in the U.S. trials in Atlanta in February, narrowly missing out on Tokyo selection. She was adamant that the results should stand even though a redo would give her another shot at a Tokyo ticket.
“Anybody suggesting the Marathon Trials be re-run, just stop,” tweeted Linden. “Please don’t crap on their parade.”
Reporting by Steve Keating in Toronto. Additional reporting Gene Cherry and Andrew Both in Raleigh, North Carolina, Rory Carrrol in Los Angeles, Amy Tennery in New York, Frank Pingue in Toronto, Karolos Grohmann in Athens, Ian Ransom in Melbourne; Editing by Bill Berkrot