Swimming Canada supports USA Swimming in pushing for Olympic postponement

Ahmed El-Awadi. (Fred Chartrand/CP)

Swimming Canada says it’s “very much aligned with many of the points” raised by USA Swimming in a letter to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee earlier on Friday.

USA Swimming CEO Tim Hinchey sent a letter Friday to his counterpart, Sarah Hirshland, urging the USOPC to push for a 12-month postponement of the Tokyo Summer Games, signalling the first fissure between powerful American factions attempting to maneuver the U.S. team through the COVID-19 outbreak.

"Everyone has experienced unimaginable disruptions, mere months before the Olympic Games, which calls into question the authenticity of a level playing field for all," Hinchey wrote. "Our athletes are under tremendous pressure, stress and anxiety, and their mental health and wellness should be among the highest priorities."

In a statement, Swimming Canada CEO Ahmed El-Awadi said telling athletes to prepare for an Olympic Games, which is set to take place in four months, during a global pandemic “raises serious issues.”

“We hold the opinions of our brothers and sisters at USA Swimming in high regard, and share many of the same concerns around health and safety. That includes the safety and well-being of our athletes – both physically and mentally – and the safety of the community at large,” El-Awadi wrote.

“In the sport of swimming it is extremely difficult to maintain training without pools, which are closed across the country and in many countries worldwide. Our athletes have worked for years to pursue their Olympic and Paralympic dreams on a level playing field against the best in the world. They are doing their very best to adapt to the changes they are facing to their normal daily training environment, which is a testament to their character.”

Swimming Canada has had consistent dialogue with the Canadian Olympic Committee and the Canadian Paralympic Committee, with El-Awadi stating that there is “mutual dialogue almost daily” with each of the committee’s CEOs.

“We understand that they are fully engaged and working diligently to push the process towards a decision that is safe for not only our national teams, but Canadians and the global population in general,” El-Awadi wrote.

Only hours before receiving the letter from Hinchey, the USOPC leaders essentially repeated the IOC line — that while athlete safety would always be their top priority, it was too soon to employ drastic measures, and that they would press forward with logistical preparations for a July 24 start.

"The decision about the games doesn’t lie directly with us," USOPC board chair Susanne Lyons said.

Left unsaid was the impact the USOPC’s voice could have in moving toward a postponement. In theory, no national Olympic federation has more power to alter the shape of an Olympics than the one in the U.S., which brings 550 athletes and its billion-dollar broadcaster, NBC, to the show every two years.

"We urge the USOPC, as a leader within the Olympic Movement, to use its voice and speak up for the athletes," Hinchey wrote.

After the USA Swimming news, Hirshland and Lyons put out a joint statement, emphasizing the multiple moving parts that are influencing any decision from the IOC, and looking ahead to an important IOC meeting next week, at which leaders will receive feedback from countries.

"Rest assured we are making your concerns clearly known to them," the statement said.

A growing number of athletes are calling for more decisive action from Olympic leaders: "The most infuriating part of this whole thing is it feels like the IOC is going to do what they want, regardless of what the athletes think," U.S. Olympic silver-medal pole vaulter Sandi Morris tweeted late Thursday.

But there is also a contingent of athletes who are not speaking up as loudly on social media.

"They want the Olympic and Paralympic community to be very intentional about the path forward — and to ensure that we aren’t prematurely taking away any athletes’ opportunity to compete in the Olympic and Paralympic Games until we have better clarity," the USOPC leaders said in their statement.

Han Xiao, the chair of the athletes’ advisory council, said the varying views are why his group has not made any definitive statements encouraging a postponement.

"We are specifically asking for more transparency around the decision-making process, more information about what measures and conditions are being discussed, and less public emphasis on training and `business as usual,’ which is putting athletes in a bad position," Han said.

Hirshland said it needed to be clear to every elite and recreational athlete out there that "as Americans, the No. 1 priority needs to be health and safety," and not training.

The USOPC has increased availability of mental and emotional counselling, as anxiety builds over what comes next. About 190 of 550 spots on the U.S. team are scheduled to be handed out for gymnastics, swimming and track at Olympic trials in June — all of which are in jeopardy.

Both the IOC and the USOPC leadership have acknowledged the realities of a qualification process that is being altered beyond recognition. Hirshland says the federation is working with individual sports, both at the national and international levels, to adapt in the event the Olympics take place without a traditional qualifying structure.

While Hinchey wrote that the chances for a level playing field were becoming more remote, he did say "our world-class swimmers are always willing to race anyone, anytime and anywhere; however, pressing forward amidst the global health crisis this summer is not the answer."

– With files from The Associated Press

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