DENVER — The head of USA Swimming urged the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee to push for a 12-month postponement of the Tokyo Games, signaling the first fissure between powerful American factions attempting to maneuver the U.S. team through the coronavirus crisis.
CEO Tim Hinchey sent a letter Friday to his counterpart at the USOPC, Sarah Hirshland, calling for the delay.
“Everyone has experienced unimaginable disruptions, mere months before the Olympic Games, which calls into question the authenticity of a level playing field for all,” Hinchey wrote. “Our athletes are under tremendous pressure, stress and anxiety, and their mental health and wellness should be among the highest priorities.”
Only hours earlier, the USOPC leaders essentially repeated the IOC line — that while athlete safety was a top priority, it was too soon to employ drastic measures.
They showed no appetite for getting out front on the postponement issue, which is gaining more steam among athletes, some Olympic leaders and, now, one of America's most high-profile national governing bodies.
“The decision about the games doesn't lie directly with us,” said USOPC board chair Susanne Lyons. “It lies with the World Health Organization, the Japanese government and the IOC. Under no circumstance would the USOPC send athletes into harm's way if it didn't think it was safe.”
Left unsaid was the impact the USOPC's voice could have in moving toward a postponement. In theory, no national Olympic federation has more power to alter the shape of an Olympics than the one in the U.S., which brings 550 athletes and its billion-dollar broadcaster, NBC, to the show every two years.
“We urge the USOPC, as a leader within the Olympic Movement, to use its voice and speak up for the athletes,” Hinchey wrote.
Hirshland did not have any immediate reaction to the letter. At their earlier media availability, both she and Lyons reiterated much of what has already been said by IOC President Thomas Bach, whose most recent interview in The New York Times stated that plans are going forward for a Tokyo Games, whether they start July 24 or some other time.
A growing number of athletes want more decisive action from Olympic leaders: "The most infuriating part of this whole thing is it feels like the IOC is going to do what they want, regardless of what the athletes think,” U.S. Olympic silver-medal pole vaulter Sandi Morris tweeted late Thursday.
But there is also a contingent of less-vocal athletes who are not speaking up as loudly on social media and “for whom this feels like their opportunity, their only opportunity,” Hirshland said.
“It adds to the complication factor" in making a decision, Hirshland said.
Han Xiao, the chair of the athletes' advisory council, confirmed that and said it's why his group has not made any definitive statements encouraging a postponement.
“We are specifically asking for more transparency around the decision-making process, more information about what measures and conditions are being discussed, and less public emphasis on training and ‘business as usual,’ which is putting athletes in a bad position," Han said.
Many athletes' training regimens have, in fact, disintegrated, as gyms, pools and communal workout spaces around the country have been closed. The USOPC has closed its Olympic training centers to all but the 180 or so who live at them — and many in those groups have chosen to leave campus.
Hirshland said it needed to be clear to every elite and recreational athlete out there that “as Americans, the Number One priority needs to be health and safety," and not training.
The USOPC has increased availability of mental and emotional counseling, as anxiety builds over what comes next. About 190 of 550 spots on the U.S. team are scheduled to be handed out at for gymnastics, swimming and track at Olympic trials in June — all of which are in jeopardy.
Both Bach and the USOPC leadership have acknowledged the realities of a qualification process that is being altered beyond recognition. Hirshland says the federation is working with individual sports, both at the national and international levels, to adapt in the event the Olympics take place without a traditional qualifying structure.
While Hinchey said the chances for a level playing field were becoming more remote, he did say “our world-class swimmers are always willing to race anyone, anytime and anywhere; however, pressing forward amidst the global health crisis this summer is not the answer.”