Olympic athletes feel relief after IOC official says Tokyo Games will be postponed

(Chris Detrick | The Salt Lake Tribune) Utah shortstop Anissa Urtez (17) at Dumke Family Softball Stadium, Thursday, May 18, 2017.

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Anissa Urtez, 25, spent a third of her life thinking she would never be able to compete in the Olympics in her favorite sport. So, upon hearing she may have to wait one more year for that dream to come true and being asked her opinion about that, the shortstop handled it like she would any softball — without flinching.

“It’s definitely frustrating to work this whole time toward that one month, but our dream has not been taken away. It’s just going to prolong it a little more,” said Urtez, a standout for the University of Utah softball team from 2014-17 who plays for Mexico. “I think that’s true for all the teams. This is more than just sport. This is humanity here.”

A top International Olympic Committee official said Monday that the postponement of the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo due to the spread of the coronavirus COVID-19 is a matter of when, not if, according to a report by USA Today.

Dick Pound, a longtime IOC board member from Canada, told the publication, “The parameters going forward have not been determined, but the Games are not going to start on July 24, that much I know.”

A day earlier, the IOC executive board, which had been unshakable in its insistence that the event would go on as planned, set a four-week deadline to determine the future of the Tokyo Olympics. Also Sunday, Canada and, less directly, Australia and Germany said they wouldn’t send athletes to the Games unless they were put off for at least a year. Several other countries and USA Track and Field and USA Swimming also urged the postponement of the Olympics over the past few days. The Tokyo Games were scheduled to start July 24.

In response Monday to Pound’s remarks, the IOC issued this statement: “It’s the right of every IOC member to interpret the decision of the IOC EB which was announced yesterday.”

Athletes mostly met Pound’s news of postponement with relief.

“I think it's the safest decision for all the athletes,” BYU swimmer Josue Dominguez, who is hoping to compete for the Dominican Republic in the 100-meter breaststroke, said in a text. “The IOC said that within a month they will communicate a new date for the Olympics, but seeing how the virus has affected the world and individuals, I think that's the best decision as for now.”

With some facing shelter-in-place restrictions and others trying to practice socially conscious social distancing, aspiring Olympic athletes have had to get creative with their training. While at-home workouts may serve as a bandage for a few weeks, they aren’t a long-term training solution. In addition, some qualifying races — like the Dominican Republic’s national swim championships, where Dominguez, 23, was hoping to cement his spot — have been canceled. Others are expected to be pushed back as measures taken to stem the deadly virus, which has killed more than 4,900 people worldwide, stretch into April and beyond.

Pound told USA Today the Olympics will most likely be rescheduled for 2021. He said the IOC would use the next four weeks to join the Tokyo Organizing Committee and the city of Tokyo — the three entities that signed the contract to host the 2020 Games — and he expected an announcement soon.

The question remains whether the threat of the virus will be prevalent even then or whether it would be better off to push the Games to 2022. Doing that, however, could put the Olympics, its broadcasters and its sponsors in direct conflict with the world’s other mega sporting event, the FIFA World Cup as well as the 2022 Winter Olympics. The Beijing Games are scheduled for Feb. 4-20 while the World Cup is on tap for Nov 21-Dec. 18 in Qatar.

Doctor Amesh Adalja, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security, said the likelihood of 11,000 athletes from 200 nations, plus coaches, fans and journalists being able to gather safely before 2021 is low.

“I think it’s going to be very hard to do anything in the near term when it comes to mass gatherings of an event at that size,” he said. “It may not spread across all areas in a uniform manner. There may be parts of the world that have it and parts that don’t have it. You don’t want it to be a mass spread event. In six months, I think we will be back again, in December, and there will be implications to having an event like the Olympics.”

He said with the development of a vaccine and with more people developing natural immunities to COVID-19, holding the games in 2021 or 2022 could be feasible. Even those dates, however, are not a guarantee.

“I don’t think we can know that for sure when will be better or when will not be better,” he said.

Urtez acknowledged that postponing the Games, no matter how long, will have a ripple effect and require sacrifices.

Urtez stepped down as an assistant softball coach at Utah Valley University this season so she could train and travel with the Mexican national team. This year, Mexico was set to make its Olympic debut in softball, which along with baseball was cut from the Olympic program in 2008 but reinstated for the 2020 Games. She knew she would be looking for a job off the diamond by this time next year. Now she will have to find one flexible enough to accommodate her national team obligations. She also worries some athletes won’t be willing or able to put their lives on hold until 2022.

She, however, will wait as long as it takes to play in the Olympics.

“I’m all on board. Even if it is moved to 2022, I want to do it,” Urtez said. “This is the dream of a lifetime. I can sacrifice a few more years to live out this dream.”