By Edwin Moses and IWF Connecticut member Donna de Varona
Over the weekend Edwin and I drafted an open letter in support of delaying the Olympics. We did so in support of the national Olympic committees of Canada and Australia in their decision to pull out of the Tokyo Olympics. We also were responding to efforts of USA Swimming and USA Track & Field, as well as athletes globally who were lobbying for postponement. As multiple Olympic gold medal-winners in swimming and track, we wanted 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. They do not have the option of purchasing insurance to cover a lifetime of lost or compromised opportunity. As well all know 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 ranked #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 start 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, and extremely important is that out-of-competition drug testing would be completely short-circuited. Both of us worked under President Clinton to establish both WADA and USADA. 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 this July would have been 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, we are now confident that the entire Olympic community has spoken and is acting with one voice. Restaging the Games will be challenging. The future is unknown as to when this virus can be appropriately controlled.
What we do know is that the fair-minded are willing to sacrifice the now for a Tokyo Olympics that will truly offer an even playing field. Both of us have benefitted greatly from our Olympic participation and contributions. Both of us were sidelined when the US led the boycott of the 1980 Olympics, Edwin as a competitor, and Donna as a broadcaster, having been named the first-ever women scheduled to co-host Olympic Games coverage. If we have learned anything from the boycotts of 1976 in Montreal, 1980 in Moscow, and 1984 in Los Angeles, it has been that the athletes ultimately pay the price of sacrifice—yet they are currently the ones who have been pushing for postponement. We are encouraged that their voices have been heard and there has been no consideration of canceling the Games altogether.
As retired athletes and longtime members of the Olympic family, we hope that very soon a viable vaccine and other treatments can be made available for a global community in need of help, reassurance, and peace.
Edwin Moses won gold medals in the 400-meter intermediate hurdles at the 1976 Montreal and 1984 Los Angeles Olympics, and a bronze at the 1988 Seoul Olympics. He 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. She won two gold medals in swimming at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics.