Olympic Greats de Varona and Moses Back Postponement of Tokyo Games

Donna de Varona

As the world awaits official confirmation of the postponement of the Olympic Games in Tokyo, which International Olympic Committee member Dick Pound said was on the way Monday, American sports legends Donna de Varona and Edwin Moses put their support behind a postponement. De Varona, a two-time gold medalist in swimming at the 1964 Games in Tokyo, and Moses, a two-time Olympic champion in the 400-meter hurdles on the track in 1976 and 1984, penned the following editorial.

By Edwin Moses and Donna de Varona

We would like to add our voices of support for the NOCs of Canada and Australia for pulling out of the Tokyo Olympics and for the suggestions by USA Swimming and USA Track and Field, as well as athletes globally, calling for the 2020 Olympics to be postponed. As multiple Olympic gold medal-winners in swimming and athletics, we want to share our reasons why the International Olympic Committee, which, in its 81-page contract with the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee, has the sole power to cancel or postpone the Olympic Games, should do so.

It’s important to note who is protected, and who isn’t. Since the 1980 Moscow Olympics boycott, the IOC, its sponsors, and television network rightsholders have taken out insurance policies to hedge against any disruption or financial losses. Comcast CEO Brian Roberts stated that his company’s NBC subsidiary will incur no losses in event of a postponement or cancellation. But we would argue that it’s the athletes who are not protected. Thousands of the world’s greatest athletes focus their lives on the four-year Olympic cycles, summer and winter. Many only have one shot at Olympic medals. We can’t ask athletes to attempt to find proper training facilities and potentially expose themselves and their coaches to the coronavirus. Specifically, we have three major reasons for urging this postponement.

First, as athletes who were No. 1 in the world going into Olympic competitions, we recognize the crucial importance of training timetables. Swimmers and hurdlers, like gymnasts and fencers, and all world-class athletes, practice tens of thousands of hours so that their bodies and minds can peak during competition. We spend every day with a routine, which gives us confidence that we can step into the starting blocks at the Trials and the Olympics and deal with the pressures to perform in those moments. It doesn’t matter whether it’s your first Olympics or your fifth. If your training schedule is disrupted, you simply cannot perform at peak potential. At present, all college pools are closed; even the great Katie Ledecky can’t find water for proper training. Hurdlers and sprinters can’t find tracks. The US Olympic and Paralympic Training Centers in Colorado Springs and Lake Placid are closed. This unprecedented interruption of training regimens would likely result in injuries and sub-par performances in Tokyo.

Second, out-of-competition drug testing would be completely short-circuited. Testing is sorely needed to restore the integrity of many sports and the sports programs of many countries; it won’t occur with proper protocols during the Covid-19 pandemic. Related to the first issue of training timetables, athletes need to stay laser-focused on achieving excellence, and not have to worry about social distancing potentially involving testing regimens. Athletes and testing personnel will not be able to honor their commitments. The cheaters will use the cover of the virus to bend or break the rules even more.

Third, the Olympics, to us, have always represented the best achievements of humanity, the apex of athletic accomplishment and celebration of the human spirit. Given the science publicly available, having 50,000 members of the Olympic family from 200-plus countries join together in Tokyo in July would be completely irresponsible – a vector to disease that humanity should not risk. We do not believe that, in the current climate, this insidious viral infection, its potential widespread transmission, and its aftermath would allow, as Beethoven’s Ode to Joy, often played at the Olympic Games, intones, “all people to become brothers and sisters.”

While there is no precedent for postponement due to a pandemic, the fact that we are fighting a global virus is reason enough for the IOC to create a precedent that places the safety and well-being of the world’s athletes above all else. As former athletes and longtime members of the Olympic family, we urge the IOC to re-schedule the Games of the XXXII Olympiad for one calendar year, with the Opening Ceremony in Tokyo on Friday, July 23, 2021. We hope that within that timeframe, a viable vaccine and other treatments can be made available.

Edwin Moses is Chairman Emeritus of the United States Anti-Doping Agency. Donna de Varona was the first president of the Women’s Sports Foundation and Chair of the 1999 FIFA Women’s World Cup.

All commentaries are the opinion of the author and do not reflect the opinion of the International Swimming Hall of Fame, Swimming World or its staff.  

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