By Sharon Robb
TOKYO, Japan, March 24, 2020–South Florida Aquatic Club’s Alia Atkinson will have to wait a little longer to make a historic fifth Olympic appearance.
After weeks of speculation, it’s official: the 2020 Summer Olympics, originally scheduled to begin on July 24 in Tokyo, Japan and end Aug. 9, have been postponed to a later date because of the global coronavirus pandemic and will not take place until 2021.
International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, made what athletes, coaches and parents knew was inevitable official on Tuesday.
This is the first time the Olympic Games have been postponed although the major international event has been canceled three times because of war.
At 31, the four-time Jamaican Olympian was looking forward to competing in her fifth and probably final Olympics. SOFLO aquatics director and head coach Chris Anderson has coached Atkinson at all four Olympics.
“I do believe it was the best choice,” said the short course breaststroke world record holder. “A great majority of athletes across the board were on the same page. There is such a sense of relief.
“I don’t really have mixed emotions,” Atkinson said. “I think you have to consider everything. If every country competed there was a high probability of getting it. If one person has it, everyone in the Athletes’ Village is confined so that would increase the odds of getting it even more. And if the virus had died down in an athlete’s country and that athlete returned home with it, a whole second wave of the virus would start.”
Canadian Olympic swimming hopeful Bill Pisani already knew his country wasn’t going to the Summer Olympics, but it really hit home on Monday when he learned the Games were being postponed.
Pisani, 21, of West Palm Beach received an email from his swim federation on Sunday night that Canada was boycotting the Olympics because of COVID-19.
“For sure I have mixed emotions,” said Pisani, who grew up swimming in the Florida Gold Coast with the Lake Lytal Lightning and graduated from Florida State last year.
“The most emotion came when I was reading the email that it was postponed. I thought ‘oh wow this is the reality now.’ The more I think about it, it was absolutely the right decision.”
Pisani was pleased to see Canada join forces with Australia boycotting the Games and pressuring the International Olympic Committee to postpone the event until 2021.
“As the son of a Canadian who’s working in a hospital right now at the forefront of this invisible war and as an Olympic hopeful who has dedicated so much of his life to chase the Olympic dream, I am more proud than ever to be Canadian,” said Pisani, referring to his country’s boycott.
Pisani’s mom Lisa is a physical therapist. Recently, her hospital, Palm Beach Gardens Medical Center, had its first confirmed case of COVID-19.
“I think there was more of a sigh of relief for all athletes around the world,” Pisani said. “There were just too many questions left unanswered. Hosting the Olympics would have put so many people in danger. It makes us as athletes feel more secure and safe.”
The Canadian Olympic Trials were scheduled for March 30-April 5 in Toronto. Pisani was a favorite to at least make a relay.
“Over the past two years, the Olympic dream had become so close to reality for me,” Pisani said. “It was getting exciting as time went on and this year the closer we got to our Olympic trials it was the most excited I have been about swimming. Everything has definitely changed.”
Sid Cassidy of Boca Raton, St. Andrew’s School aquatics director and longtime swim coach, is vice chairman of the FINA technical open water swimming committee. He has been working Olympic events since 2008.
“I think at this point the athletes had it right,” said Cassidy, who was set to serve as referee for the men’s and women’s 10K races.
“It is hard when you see athletics taking a back seat,” Cassidy said. “Of course, I am disappointed they are not going to do it this year, but it certainly seems to be the best decision.
“There is no easy way to redirect your life. A lot of the talk is to be stronger and learn from it but it doesn’t take away any of the pain. This is very different from the 1980 Olympic boycott, this involves the whole world. I am happy for the athletes knowing but not happy with the reality.”
The U.S. swimming trials were scheduled for June 21-28 in Omaha. The pandemic had already disrupted the training of every elite athlete and Olympic hopeful in the U.S.
The postponement and rescheduling to no later than the summer of 2021 will already add to a crowded 2021 schedule that features the 2021 FINA World Aquatic Championships in Fukuoka, July 16-Aug. 1. Track and field will also have a conflict with its Aug. 6-15, 2021 World Track and Field Championships in Eugene, Ore.
Florida State swim coach Neal Studd echoed Cassidy’s sentiments after watching his swim program’s NCAA season end early because of COVID-19. The men’s team was expected to finish in the Top 10 for the first time.
FSU had eight swimmers at World Championships and six at University Games. Studd was the 2012 St. Lucia Olympic coach and has coached several student-athletes on the international level.
“If anything this gives it some clarity,” Studd said. “Now we get to re-set and plan accordingly.
“There are bigger problems than sports right now. There is a big picture here and bigger place in the world. Obviously though I would rather be at NCAAs and Canadian trials.”
Mariusz Podkoscielny, two-time Olympian for Poland in 1988 and 1992, now head swim coach at Pine Crest School, said problems were already beginning to surface because of the lack of out-of-competition drug tests during the pandemic.
“There is the aspect that the Olympic competition would not be fair, that the way of preparation is not on a level playing field,” Podkoscielny said. “There are issues of people taking advantage of illegal supplements without conducting the out-of-competition drug testing. It would give athletes a green light to do it.”
Podkoscielny said the COVID-19 is bigger than any sports event including the Olympics.
“The majority of athletes are going to feel relieved,” Podkoscielny said. “These are not the circumstances to get ready for the Olympics or think about the Olympics. People’s lives are changing daily.
“If I were an athlete right now I would be heartbroken not going. There will be disappoitment but it is right thing to do. Everyone agrees with that.”
Sharon Robb can be reached at email@example.com