Despite IOC’s stubbornness, Olympics won’t fail to inspire when they do arrive

With the 2020 Olympics seemingly on the move to 2021, 2-time Olympic gold medalist in trampoline Rosie MacLennan joins Arash Madani to discuss the decision and what it means for Canadian athletes.

Have you ever had that friend, that person in your life that just drips with self-importance? That is so assured of their significance in the lives of everyone around them that they never pause to think about it?

Call them up, ask how they’re doing and buckle in, because they’ll tell you, in detail, until they have to move on — ‘Chat later’ — and take another call. How you are is just not that important. They don’t ask.

They mostly get away with it because of some combination of their charm, shared history and habit, that to make a big fuss about it ends up being a waste of breath. You realize they’re going to float through life ensconced and comforted in their bubble regardless, so it’s up to you to figure out how to deal with it.

Plus, they throw the best parties and are the most fun and, well, we all make our compromises.

Anyway, not to worry if any friends of mine are reading this. I’m not talking about you. I am referring to the International Olympics Committee, the Donald Trump of international sports organizations, if Trump went to an elite Swiss boarding school and spoke with a vague pan-Euro accent.

As the COVID-19 virus first appeared as a threat and began spreading, relentlessly, across the planet, the IOC did nothing, firm in their belief that their plans for the Summer Games, scheduled for July 24-to-Aug. 9 in Tokyo were more important.

The IOC kept IOC-ing.

They kept pushing forward with their plan to invite 600,000 people — and 11,000 athletes — from every corner of the globe to one of the world’s most densely populated cities for two weeks, even as the most credible medical professionals civilization can offer were desperately trying to convince anyone that would listen that we needed to stop, evaluate and act decisively to avoid even more potentially catastrophic outcomes.

Around the world government leaders shut their respective economies down, hoping that they could avoid the worst the virus could bring. The IOC, free from having to deal with the fallout of their decisions, paid no attention — they had a party to host.

It takes a certain amount of hubris — like, a lot — to think that the Olympics should somehow be excluded from the rolling lockdown that has touched almost every country that would send a contingent to Tokyo.

On Tuesday morning the IOC finally did what they should have done weeks ago, when they formally announced that the 2020 Games would be postponed until next summer.

What an about-face.

Even Richard Pound, the rogue IOC member from Montreal — who first broached the possibility of a postponement in an interview back in February — had said then that May would be the go/no-go date for Tokyo. He was off by more than two months.

The pandemic has grown five-fold since then.

In response, the IOC pushed back.

• “Go ahead full team” was its message to athletes on Feb. 28th with regards to preparing for Tokyo.
• A few days later, on March 3, it was, “We are going to have the Games on July 24.”

And they kept pushing. Even last week as death tolls were mounting in Italy and the rest of Europe was looking at increasingly grim trend lines, and New York City was projecting as the next epicentre, the IOC was insistent: The Games would go on.

• March 17: “The IOC encourages all athletes to continue to prepare for the Olympics Games Tokyo 2020 as best they can” (this after the IOC had issued a work-from-home order for their offices in Lausanne).

The IOC finally cracked on Sunday, acknowledging that they would make a final decision in four weeks, with IOC president Thomas Bach telling The New York Times “We are not living in a bubble or on another planet. Of course we are considering different scenarios.”

As usual, the real world had left the dilettantes behind. Elsewhere, the world of sports was helping set the agenda, placing public health above the bottom line. Where they didn’t, governments made the decision for them.

The IOC — accountable to no one other than perhaps the sponsors that put $3 billion in their silk pockets — stayed the course, the last ones to acknowledge that lightning from a coming storm could hit them too.

The IOC didn’t just dither, they didn’t just swim upstream — they steered their luxury yacht against the current of common sense and pushed the throttle forward.

They got nowhere. The wave of the pandemic was too big, too much to overcome, even for their egos. The good ship IOC drifted sideways like a cruise ship with the cooties being denied at port after port, until they finally stalled.

Among the winners in the whole affair will be Canada, for seeing the right thing to do and acting on it.

It was Canadian Olympic hockey hero Hayley Wickenheiser — a representative on the IOC’s athlete’s commission — that called B.S. last week, breaking ranks and demanding the adults in the room shape up.

Over the weekend, leadership at the Canadian Olympic Committee and among the COC’s athletes commission — stand up, Rosie MacLennan — said enough was enough and broke from the pack to say that even if the IOC failed to read the large print staring at them, Canada wouldn’t send a team.

Australia followed, and a number of other federations too.

But Canada was first — “It was not coordinated” — said COC president Trish Smith on a conference call Tuesday regarding Canada’s agenda-setting move.

Did their decision influence the IOC? Possibly, not that they were waiting for a congratulatory note.

“We provided additional information to the IOC on how exactly this was affecting our athletes, how exactly we came to the determination that it was not safe to continue in this present situation,’ said Smith. “…I think the information we provided to them likely would have helped in the decision … [and] if it had that effect, we’re happy for that. But our focus was doing the right thing here in Canada.”

Finally the IOC had to act, but when they did, they made the whole thing sound like it was their idea.

Nowhere was there any acknowledgement that actions taken by Canada, Australia, Norway, Brazil and some of the most influential sports organizations within the United States Olympic Committee were heard.

From the release:

“In the present circumstances and based on the information provided by the WHO today, the IOC President and the Prime Minister of Japan have concluded that the Games of the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo must be rescheduled to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021, to safeguard the health of the athletes, everybody involved in the Olympic Games and the international community.”

Can’t you picture them self-isolating in a ski resort in the Swiss Alps, sending dictation?

Still, however the IOC belatedly arrived at the decision shouldn’t take away from its significance.

Since the modern Olympic movement was launched with the 1896 Games in Paris, the Summer Games have only ever not been held on schedule three times: once due to World War I and twice due to World War II.

We’re in a war of a different kind, but the battle lines are drawn.

But true to its nature, the IOC didn’t stop there. By pledging to hold the Games in 2021 it’s as if they’ve put the pandemic on notice — ‘Finish your business in 2020, because we have a party to plan for next summer.’

They aren’t even changing the Games’ name. Even in 2021 it will be ‘Tokyo 2020,’ as if time didn’t exist for them.

For the sake of everyone, we can only hope that COVID-19 respects their authority, current evidence to the contrary.

And — again, true to nature — the IOC stated the case that the Olympics can be a galvanizing force between now and then, the shining light we all need to see through the darkness the IOC wasn’t ready to properly acknowledge until Tuesday morning.

From the release:

“The leaders agreed that the Olympic Games in Tokyo could stand as a beacon of hope to the world during these troubled times and that the Olympic flame could become the light at the end of the tunnel in which the world finds itself at present. Therefore, it was agreed that the Olympic flame will stay in Japan. It was also agreed that the Games will keep the name Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.”

Long-time Olympics watchers argue that there is at least precedent for this. The modern movement was founded to use sport to bring nations together in a time of rising international tensions.

There are similar possibilities and needs today. As borders close, the need for mutual understanding grows. As economies shrink, the importance of the strong helping the weak rings more loudly.

Can the Olympics help? It’s a tall order, but the Olympics never fail to inspire hope. We’ll always be suckers that way.

Olympic scholar Dr. Bruce Kidd represented Canada at Tokyo Olympics in 1964, the first Games in Japan since the bombing of Hiroshima in 1945. The final torch bearer, Yoshinori Sakai, was born in Hiroshima the day after the nuclear attack that ended the second world war, his presence representing post-war reconciliation and peace.

Kidd remembers walking around Tokyo and Japanese people saying to him and other visitors in the only English they could muster, “No more Hiroshima.”

“The framing of the Games [next summer] and the messaging around it needs to be not just about sport, but about the larger community,” said Kidd.

It’s a worthy goal. If we are lucky enough that the Games can safely be held in 2021, hopefully the IOC recognizes it will be because many have made massive sacrifices to make it happen — from athletes putting their dreams on hold to front-line health care workers risking their well-being in the struggle to contain the virus, to business owners and employees facing what promises to be gale-force economic head winds for months to come.

No matter what happens, the Olympics — whenever they’re held — won’t fail. The beauty of the competition guarantees it. It’s too perfect to fall short — it never does.

But this time the IOC should understand that the Olympics can’t be about them and what makes them look good. By that logic, we’d still be ploughing ahead to July with the very real possibility that the Games would have made the pandemic worse — for the athletes trying to train, for the thousands pushing behind the scenes to meet an unrealistic and dangerous deadline, for the world once 600,000 visitors left Japan and fanned outwards.

At last the IOC has done the right thing and postponed the Games, but this one time we shouldn’t let them forget that their first instinct was to put themselves first, and this time there was nothing charming about it.

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