IOC’s holding pattern on Tokyo Olympics should come as no surprise

Sportsnet analyst Stephen Brunt joins Lead Off to tip his cap to the Canadian Olympic Committee for making the tough but right call to hold their athletes back, and is baffled that the IOC hasn't followed suit yet, and postponed the 2020 Games.

That the IOC is once again failing miserably when it comes to a test of leadership should hardly come as a news flash. Indeed, “IOC screws up response to Pandemic” was probably one of the most predictable news item in these hugely unpredictable times.
 
Much like we’ve seen individual states shoulder the burden of dealing with the situation in our neighbours to the south while central authority dithers, so too has the burden fallen on individual Olympic committees to step up in the absence of IOC leadership. Kudos, then, to the Canadian Olympic Committee for being the first to say late Sunday night that it will not send its athletes to Japan for the August games despite the IOC’s dribble about cancellation “not being on the agenda,” and kicking the can down the road for another month before it makes a final decision.
 
My hope is that the IOC reasoning lies with some language buried deep in its agreement with the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee or in its myriad broadcast deals, some force majeure-type of stuff that precludes a cancellation being publicized at this time. Yes, I hope it’s simply filthy lucre at the core of it, as opposed to intellectual jack-assery or wanton disregard of safety. I can handle that. And I nodded in agreement when IOC member Richard Pound told us on Writers Bloc on Monday that you need to be able to decipher “IOC-speak” and if you do you’ll realize that what the IOC has been indicating all along is that postponement had advanced well beyond an “option.”
 
Part of me kind of sees why they’re all still at the stage where they’re holding meetings to determine when they’ll make a determination, because at 60 years of age I’ve smelt the IOC stench for many years. The cynic in me understands why the IOC and Tokyo want to hold on to the idea of the games going ahead in August: the coronavirus pandemic is a crisis that’s too good to let pass.
 
Hear me out: There will come a time when sports are played again, even if it’s in empty arenas or stadiums and with compressed schedules or new-fangled playoff formats. They will be played out to fulfill contractual broadcast and marketing obligations, hopefully after the proper clearances are given by medical experts and competent, sober-minded politicians. 

My guess, too, is there will be a point where pressure is applied to professional sports leagues to get back at it as a means of restoring normality, as a means of rallying public spirit. I mean, you can hear Trump on the phone to Roger Goodell right now, can’t you. Already, the tone of discussion south of the border has shifted from “we’ll do whatever it takes however long it takes” to “we can’t keep this up for months.”
 
Which leads me back to the IOC and Tokyo and these words from Japanese president Shinzo Abe to other G-7 leaders last week, when he said holding the games on time would show that the world could “defeat the new coronavirus.” It’s an eye-roller, but given how much national pride and stick-to-itiveness is at stake in hosting the Olympics — we ourselves were not immune in 2010 — it’s understandable that the IOC and Japan would hang on to the notion of using the event as a celebration of humanity’s resilience, etc., etc.

Because here’s the thing: Whether it’s the NBA or Major League Baseball or the NFL or NHL, there will be immense goodwill generated by being the ‘first’ to get back in action. Yes, it’s hugely unimportant given where we are right now but at some point we won’t be where we are any more. And sports will want to come back with a bang, whether it’s playoffs or, in the case of Major League Baseball, pushing up the All-Star Game and getting fans to vote on who they want in as a celebration to start a shortened season. Whatever.

So you can see where the IOC might view modifying plans and pushing back the start date or scaling down competition preferable to bouncing it back a year. Holding the Olympics this summer would decouple the event from the Euros, which have already been pushed back to next year. It would be the biggest event of the summer.
 
The Olympics will be postponed. I hurt for the athletes who, a year older, may find themselves up against it when it comes to qualifying. Some may miss their only chance to compete. Others, their best chance. But at a time when training facilities are shut down and international borders are just this side of impermeable, the notion that any athlete could balance proper preparation with necessary and proper regard for the health of themselves and their loved ones is ludicrous.
 
This is a time that is both exposing and revealing the leaders among us and in terms of sports that means standing aside until services are once again desired. And this is the danger the IOC faces: without clarity in the midst of rising death tolls, it’s going to lose the very importance and special nature it is seeking to reinforce. Woe to the IOC if it becomes an annoyance or impediment.

QUIBBLES AND BITS

• Five words I never thought I’d hear myself saying: “Thank god for the NFL.” Hey, you do three hours of talk sports radio and you’ll understand how comforting it was this past week to see players moving around and fans getting excited/deflated/enraged and, well, I guess it really is the most powerful brand in sports that not even a pandemic can knock it off its axis.

• It’s not just Tom Brady that the Patriots have lost. They’ve also seen that very good defence picked apart, and don’t look now but the player in the AFC East with the most pressure upon him is Bills quarterback Josh Allen, who along with the rest of his teammates must surely feel a hurricane blowing in their faces from that wide-open window of opportunity.

• Philip Rivers seems like a good fit for the Colts: First, he’ll be reunited with Frank Reich, the Colts head coach who was with Rivers when they were with the Chargers from 2013-15. Second, the Colts have a good offensive line — third in pass block win rate — and have a steady left tackle in Anthony Castonzo guiding his blind side. Plus, as ESPN’s Bill Barnwell notes: seven of Rivers’ 20 interceptions came with his team trailing in the final five minutes of a game, a league high. The Colts need some upgrades around him, but this seems like a logical marriage.

• It’s a lot easier for some leagues than others to decide whether to terminate their seasons, merely postpone them or move on to the playoffs. As sportswriter Tobias Altschaffl of Sport Bild told us on Writers Bloc, one of the reasons the Bundesliga and other leagues are determined to finish their seasons regardless of the calendar is because many smaller clubs in the top tiers of European soccer depend on full payments of TV contracts to remain afloat. Without fulfilling TV deals, some clubs could effectively go under. It’s one reason European clubs were so insistent on UEFA postponing this summers Euros, freeing up the calendar for resumption of play.

• Rob Bradford, the exceptional Red Sox’s beat reporter for WEEI in Boston, had an interesting note concerning Chris Sale’s imminent Tommy John surgery: there is no date for the procedure, Bradford reported, because hospitals and physicians are currently prioritizing dealing with the coronavirus pandemic. Yikes. Bradford cites similar recent March surgeries for the Twins Trevor May and Tigers Michael Fullmer as keeping them out for 16 months last season and a scheduled 15 months this season, respectively.

• Toronto FC is using Zoom video-conferencing as a way of putting their players through conditioning workouts during the MLS shutdown — players sign in and an eye is kept on them — but president Bill Manning says keeping the players soccer brains sharp is another issue. Unlike players in Europe, whose seasons are two-thirds finished, there’s little current videotape of the 2020 campaign that might be of use in a tactical classroom setting.

Writers Bloc
TFC President on the MLS season being put on pause
March 20 2020

• Jonathan Wilson of The Guardian is one of our very best when it comes to writing and talking about the tactics of sport — in this case, soccer — and I loved his article on how the pandemic hiatus presents a unique opportunity for some of the game’s deep thinkers such as Pep Guardiola and Jurgen Klopp, offering time for tactical inspiration. Wilson relates the story Hungarian coach Martin Bulkovi, who in addition to protecting his Jewish groundskeeper while he coached in Croatia and doing his bit to take bits and pieces out of Fascism during the Second World War, experimented with various formations and became legendary for his tactical nous. I asked a scouting friend what he was doing to kill the time this weekend and he replied: “Waiting to see how the Rays turn this chaos into a tactical advantage/”

THE ENDGAME

This tweet from free-agent pitcher Jared Hughes made me smile. Note the position of home plate

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