Tokyo Olympics 2020: As the Games get postponed, for the athletes it’s a blessing and a curse

When news of Tokyo Olympics being postponed finally came, it was the ultimate mixed blessing: a lifeline for some and a new set of challenges that may be insurmountable because of financial, age or health issues for others.

The New York Times March 25, 2020 17:46:31 IST
Tokyo Olympics 2020: As the Games get postponed, for the athletes it’s a blessing and a curse

Steele Johnson, a diver who won a silver medal for the United States at the 2016 Rio Games, woke up on Tuesday morning to texts from friends saying they were so sorry that the Summer Olympics had been postponed. They knew how hard it had been for Johnson, 23, and his wife, Hilary, to make ends meet as he pursued a gold medal in Tokyo.

When he read the news, Johnson said, he felt a pit in his stomach.

Tokyo Olympics 2020 As the Games get postponed for the athletes its a blessing and a curse

The postponement of Tokyo Olympics 2020 is not the first instance of the Games being cancelled or rescheduled. AP Photo

“We’ve had a very, very tough year financially,” he said. “I don’t know if I could keep up a lifestyle like this for another 12 to 15 months of just diving without getting a full-time job. It’s hard to think about making more sacrifices than we already have.”

For days, athletes had been voicing concerns about the 2020 Tokyo Games, worrying that they were jeopardising their health and the health of others if they continued training while many of their countries were locked down and restricting activity.

In polls and surveys conducted over the weekend, athletes voted in overwhelming numbers in favour of a postponement.

Yet when the news finally came, it was the ultimate mixed blessing: a lifeline for some and a new set of challenges that may be insurmountable because of financial, age or health issues for others.

Like so many Olympians, Johnson, who has a degree in film and video studies from Purdue, lives on a tight budget that has no place for cuts. He and his wife don’t buy new clothes. At home in Indiana, their grocery bill must stay within $60 a week. He has worked nights as a driver for the food delivery service Grubhub. His wife is a wedding photographer.

After he won a silver medal at the Rio Games, Johnson could not secure a sponsor. He receives a small stipend for being on the national team but now will look for work that can carry him through to the new, unspecified date for the Games in 2021.

“I’m just going to have to be creative,” he said. “I will do what I can to support my family and pay for our food and our dogs’ food, but it’s going to be a challenge.”

Greg Meehan, the Stanford women’s swimming coach and the head of the US women’s team, said the postponement left talented high school seniors with a tough choice: forgo college for another year and train exclusively for the Olympics or juggle training and the stresses of freshman year.

“The timing was perfect: Go to the trials, hopefully make the Olympic team and then there’s that natural transition to college,” he said.

Meehan’s swimmers include Katie Ledecky, a five-time Olympic gold medallist who took the longer, bigger-picture view in a message she posted on Twitter after the postponement was announced: “As we stand together to meet today’s challenges, we can dream about a wonderful Olympics in a beautiful country. Now is the time to support all those working to heal the sick and keep us all healthy.”

Ledecky, 23, put off her senior year of college to focus on the Tokyo Games, and Meehan still doesn’t expect her back in the classroom until after the Olympics.

“I don’t think this summer was going to be the best she was ever going to be,” Meehan said. “I think she’s going to be better next year.”

For Laurie Hernandez, a gymnast training in Costa Mesa, California, the postponement was exactly what she needed.

She took two years off after winning a team gold medal and a bronze in the balance beam at the Rio Games, working in entertainment. She competed on “Dancing With the Stars” — and won it — and also hosted “American Ninja Warriors Junior.”

When she embarked on a comeback to the national team late last year, many people in the sport said it was too late. Before her gym was closed on Thursday because of a statewide lockdown, she had been going there six days a week, at least five hours a day, training and rushing to fine-tune routines. She was doing everything and anything that could give her the best chance at making the Olympic team this summer.

“Of course, I’d love more time to train,” she said last week.

For other athletes, a postponement fit with what the doctor ordered.

Kathleen Baker, 23, who won a gold and silver medal in swimming at the Rio Olympics, has Crohn’s disease, an autoimmune disorder that makes her especially vulnerable to the novel coronavirus.

Training lately had descended into a search for open pools in San Diego, where she lives.

“It’s been everyone fending for themselves, so it is not what the Olympics are all about,” Baker said recently.

Sandi Morris, a pole-vaulter who won a silver medal in the 2016 Games, lost access to her regular training facility, and thus her finely tuned routine, when the University of Arkansas closed its doors this month in Fayetteville.

This weekend, Morris — along with her two dogs and two birds — had planned to drive from Arkansas to Greenville, South Carolina, where she will rent a house near where her parents live to carry out a makeshift training plan at a pole-vaulting pit her father is building at a neighbourhood football field.

Morris said she was concerned how she would support herself through the pandemic and the postponement, with no opportunities for appearance fees and prize money on the horizon.

“What do we do for the rest of the year?” Morris said. “We need to make money. But that’s what the rest of the world is facing right now.”

Sheryl Shade, a longtime agent for Olympians and Olympic hopefuls, said her winter athletes began calling her after the postponement was announced, worried that their sponsorship dollars were at stake.

“I told them they had to get in line,” Shade said. “Everybody’s concerned about the funding and the sponsors, who were pretty much finished with their campaigns that they are shipping to Japan. Now those sponsors might have to change them. Will there be enough money for everybody? It’s too early to tell.”

For Allison Schmitt, a swimmer who was pursuing her fourth Olympic berth, the postponement of the Tokyo Games is the second deferment she has faced in a year. Schmitt, 29, already put on hold her pursuit of a master’s degree in social work at Arizona State after she spent the 2019 spring semester completing the first of her required counseling internships, an emotionally and physically draining experience that she blames in part for a poor showing in last summer’s world championships in South Korea.

Tuesday’s announcement left Schmitt in a quandary. Does she pause her final year of school for 12 more months? Try to juggle the pursuit of her degree and another Olympic berth? Or does she get on with her life and leave her swimming aspirations somewhat unfulfilled?

“The problem is, can we stretch this another year?” her coach, Bob Bowman, said. “I mean, I can. But I’m not sure she can.”

One glance at the Olympic rower Gevvie Stone’s calendar explains her predicament after the postponement. On 17 August, eight days after the Games were to end, she is expected to rejoin her residency in emergency medicine at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston after taking a two-year leave of absence.

“There are two ways of looking at this,” said Stone, 34, who won a silver medal in the single scull at the 2016 Rio Games. “One, you can say, ‘I’ve already taken two years off, what’s another year?’ And two, it does seem like a very anticlimactic end to my career, considering I heard the postponement news on the radio halfway through a weight lifting session.”

The Tokyo Games would have been her third and final Olympics. Now Stone is not sure her Olympic career is over, though continuing to train would require her to extend the leave of absence.

The coronavirus has made the decision about her athletic future even harder. She has offered to return to her hospital immediately if the virus reaches a crisis level in Boston.

“There’s definitely a feeling of guilt because I did take the Hippocratic oath,” Stone said, “and I take my responsibility very seriously.”

For Ryan Lochte, the 2020 Olympics were supposed to be about redemption and salvaging his reputation after he made international headlines at the 2016 Olympics for falsely stating that he was robbed at gunpoint.

“I was disappointed,” Lochte, 35, said of finding out the Olympics were postponed. “This was going to be my biggest Olympics. Especially with everything that has happened.”

A 12-time Olympic medallist, Lochte was suspended from the sport for 10 months and dropped by most of his sponsors after the incident in Rio de Janeiro. Two years later, he was suspended for 14 months after posting a picture on his Instagram of himself receiving an infusion of a permitted substance through an unapproved method.

He has since made an effort to turn his life around. Lochte married in 2017 and now has two children, and he returned to swimming full time two years ago, reuniting with his former coach, Gregg Troy, at the University of Florida.

Lochte said that after the postponement announcement Troy told him: “ ‘Well, this is just a bump in the road. For you, you’ve had a lot of bumps in the past four years, and you’ve overcome them.’ ”

Then there is the Paralympian David Brown, who has become the fastest sprinter in his category and was on a track at the Olympic training center in Chula Vista, California, on Tuesday. Asked what he thought when he woke up to the news, Brown said, “Honestly, my reaction was: OK, what time is training today?”

He said the Olympic and Paralympic Games were not the only reason for training and competing. “We’re training to better ourselves and to stay on top of the world. Just because the Games got postponed, this is not the time to say there’s nothing to race for.”

Juliet Macur, Karen Crouse, Andrew Keh and Matthew Futterman c 2020 The New York Times Company

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