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U.S. Olympic Hopefuls React To Postponement

As COVID-19 continues to disrupt lives globally, Olympic hopefuls—who have been preparing for the Tokyo Games for nearly all their lives—find themselves both disappointed and hopeful.

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Japan has made it official: The Olympics and Paralympics will be postponed until sometime in the summer of 2021 as the world reels from the spread of COVID-19.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said, “I proposed to postpone for about a year and [IOC] president Thomas Bach responded with 100 percent agreement.”

The country has committed to hosting the Summer Games in about one year’s time, no later than summer 2021, but no exact dates are available yet.

“We fully support this decision, and the whole World Triathlon staff is now working in close cooperation with the IOC, the IPC, the Tokyo Organizing Committee and all the other stakeholders to help find the best dates for the Games to take place, as well as trying to find answers to all the questions raised by this difficult situation,” said World Triathlon President and IOC member, Marisol Casado.

“We understand that there are lots of questions unanswered at the moment,” she added.

Here in the U.S., we have more questions than answers, as well. What we do know is that according to USAT representatives, Summer Rappaport has qualified for a spot on the Olympic team that will compete in Tokyo, while no other American triathletes or paratriathletes have auto-qualified for the U.S. team so far. Rappaport auto-qualified for the Olympics with a fifth-place finish at the ITU Olympic Qualification Event in Tokyo last August. 

On Tuesday, Rappaport learned of the postponement from her home in Durham, N.C., where she’s currently on day two of a preventative 14-day COVID-19 self-isolation period after a recent training trip in Portugal. “My initial reaction was a bit mixed,” she said. “I’m obviously extremely disappointed, but I was also relieved. I was worried that the Games would be cancelled outright, and the IOC claims that the Games would go on in July as planned didn’t seem possible.” Despite her disappointment, Rappaport was at least somewhat prepared, as she had seen the writing on the wall elsewhere.

“I did have a sense that either a postponement of cancelation was coming,” Rappaport said. “Most of the timeline predictions made by epidemiologists interviewed didn’t seem to line up well with a massive global gathering beginning in July. From a health perspective, it seemed unlikely to me that people from every corner of the globe would be able to descend upon Tokyo safely. Furthermore, most athletes are unable to train right now and anti-doping controls have been scaled back.” Other Olympic hopefuls similarly felt the winds change coming, but like Rappaport saw the scope and severity of the pandemic. 

“It was not a huge surprise with a lot of the closures, delays, and cancellations that have come this first part of the year,” said 2016 Olympian Ben Kanute, who was hoping to qualify for his second Olympic Games. “There is definitely disappointment, but also an understanding that this is the right call for the health of everyone around the world.”

For paratriathletes, the news has also been difficult, but intersects with a unique reality—different from what many other Olympic hopefuls have been facing. “The hard part for many paratriathletes right now is that with closures, restrictions, and social distancing, their limited opportunities to train with handlers or guides have been made exponentially more difficult,” said Ben Collins, a former pro triathlete and current guide to Paralympic triathlon hopeful in the VI (visually impaired) category Aaron Scheidies. “While the announcement is hard, the training situation has been nearly impossible for a while for us to succeed at the top level.” 

This sentiment was echoed by two-time Olympian Sarah True, who’s husband Ben is a U.S. Olympic hopeful in track: “More than anything, I’m relieved for the athletes. For the past couple of weeks, they’ve been in a state of limbo,” she said. “It has been increasingly difficult to train, given pool closures and regional restrictions, and yet the IOC was saying that they wanted to proceed with the Games. Getting an official postponement is better than the uncertainty they had before.”

With the announcement, however, also comes a new sense of uncertainty, given that selection procedures for almost all sports will have to be revised. According to USA Triathlon, they will be updating their selection and qualification procedures—which will certainly require a complete focus shift from Olympic and Paralympic hopefuls. 

The decision to postpone came as pressure had been mounting from athletes, governing bodies, and individual countries. Earlier in the week, both Australia and Canada withdrew citing health concerns. The U.S. Olympic Committee, additionally, urged the IOC to postpone the Games—with the backing of many athletes. A survey done of 1,700 Team USA athletes found that most of the athletes who responded were concerned, even if the health issues had been resolved, it would be too difficult after the disruptions in training, doping controls, and qualification processes.

The Olympics have not been canceled, nor postponed, since World War II when Tokyo was scheduled to host the Summer Games in 1940 but had to bow out. The Games were then awarded to Helsinki, Finland, but were later canceled after the outbreak of WWII. Helsinki ultimately hosted the 1952 Summer Games and Tokyo in 1964. Ahead of the current postponement, Paris is set to host the Summer Olympics in 2024, and Los Angeles in 2028.

Though the news comes as a harsh blow to already embattled professional triathletes who have been facing an uncertain future due to race cancellations, for now positivity still reigns.

“Champions deal with adversity and overcome it, they do not give into it,” said Kanute, whose advice for Olympic hopefuls is the same as it is for everyday triathletes. “Take this time to work on your weaknesses and build up your strengths. Everyone is in a similar situation, so just keep working and making progress.”

“My coach Jim Vance, said it best: ‘Timelines change, but goals don’t,’” he added. “I have another year to be better than I am now.”