Olympics Still On for Now, But Qualifiers Keep Getting Canceled
While fans wait to find out whether the 2020 Tokyo Olympics will start in July as scheduled, athletes and organizers have a more immediate concern: Dozens of qualifying events across sports and around the world have been canceled or postponed.
The International Olympic Committee said Tuesday that global sports federations could seek “necessary and practical adaptations” to the ways they select athletes. But there isn’t a lot of time to reschedule major national and international competitions, and any changes in the qualifying process will tilt the playing field in a way no one’s prepared for.
“From the IOC’s perspective, there’s still time,” said Isabelle McLemore, a representative for USA Swimming. “The games are still a fair amount of time away, but everyone who’s participating is in turmoil at the moment when you talk about qualifying.”
The Olympics have become the exception in a global sports industry that has shut down due to the virus. More than a decade of planning and billions of dollars has gone into Tokyo 2020, and for the organizers, global sponsors, media companies and the national Japanese hospitality industry, there is a lot to lose.
Changes to the qualification process -- a complex web of international events and domestic trials that varies by sport -- are the IOC’s first major concession to an outbreak that has afflicted more than 200,000 people around the world and locked down major cities from Shanghai to New York.
By the IOC’s accounting, 57% of the roughly 11,000 athletes expected to compete in 2020 have already qualified. But that doesn’t reflect the reality for participants. Many teams secure slots for competitors first, then fill them later. The U.S. wrestling team, for example, has slots for athletes in 15 of the 18 Olympic weight classes. The IOC counts that as 15 athletes qualified, but USA Wrestling planned to award those slots to specific athletes at its trials in early April.
That meet was postponed. USA Wrestling hopes to reschedule, but if it can’t, the team will have to pick a team another way, according to spokesman Gary Abbott. To make things harder, the team was still hoping to land additional Olympic slots during an international competition this spring -- it’s unclear how global wrestling authorities might dole those out if the event can’t be held.
Archery, fencing, water polo, sailing, rowing -- plenty of sports in plenty of countries are in a similar spot.
That prospect has athletes and coaches uneasy. A fair, codified qualifying process is one of the supreme guiding principles for the games. It’s hard to crown someone the best in the world if you change the rules midway through the process. It’s also hard if athletes can’t train properly.
“Training facilities in most places have been closed down, so the best you can do is train in your driveway, or run around Central Park,” said Rick Burton, a Syracuse University professor and former chief marketing officer for Team USA. “Frankly, that’s not going to be good enough.”
For now, the big U.S. qualifiers -- swimming, track and field, and gymnastics -- are still scheduled for the end of June, though there are hundreds of athletes who had been counting on now-canceled spring competitions to sneak their way into trials.
For swimming, 1,215 athletes have already qualified for trials. An additional 200 were expected to join them this spring before the field gets trimmed to a team of roughly 26 men and 26 women. Like track and gymnastics, swimming can wait to see how the current crisis unfolds and organizers hope to hold trials as planned.
If they can’t, there’s very little wiggle room. Each individual team owes its specific roster to Team USA by July 6. Trials for track and swimming can’t be postponed -- unless the Olympics get pushed back, a prospect that’s looking increasingly likely by the day.
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