It's Time for the U.S. to Officially Withdraw from the 2020 Olympics

Canada and Australia have already announced that they refuse to participate in the 2020 Olympics unless they are postponed. Now, the U.S. Olympic Committee must take a stand.
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Your 2020-ish Summer Olympics update: Canada is out, Australia is out, and the United States really wants to get out too, but it is scared to speak up. Heads of the U.S.’s two largest and most important federations, swimming and track, have said the Olympics should be postponed until 2021. But the U.S. Olympic Committee’s official position is equal parts hem and haw.

It’s time for the U.S. to officially withdraw from the 2020 Olympics, with the request that the Games be delayed until 2021. The delay is inevitable, anyway. Forget about an Olympics in Japan this summer. There is a greater chance of Donald Trump and Joe Biden voting for each other. IOC member Dick Pound told USA Today on Monday that he expects the Olympics to be postponed, but the IOC has maintained that a delay is under consideration and that it needs four weeks to think about it.

In normal times, pulling out of the Olympics would be an extraordinary and controversial measure. Now it would be a strategic move, an attempt to get the whole teetering Jenga tower to collapse now instead of later. If the U.S. pulls out, NBC will obviously want a delay, too—the network's worst Olympic fear is an Olympics with no Americans.

It might seem pointless to pull out now when the Olympics will be delayed later anyway. But there are very good reasons to do it. First is the public health; it is both reckless and inappropriate for the USOC to spend the next month getting ready for the Olympics.

Second: When the IOC says it has time, it means exactly that: The IOC has time. The athletes do not.

Pound may have said that he expects the Olympics to be postponed, but he does not speak for the IOC. The IOC has said it will take a month to make an official decision.The IOC can say that because to the IOC, the Olympics may start July 24. To competitors, they started months or years ago. Their training is constant. Their timing is precise. Their workouts are planned down to the minute and their diets down to the calorie. Some U.S. trials have already been postponed. Others are in peril. 

To the IOC, the Olympics may start July 24. To competitors, they started months or years ago. Their training is constant. Their timing is precise. Their workouts are planned down to the minute and their diets down to the calorie. Some U.S. trials have already been postponed. Others are in peril.

It is not fair to athletes to make them train for another month in such uncertain conditions, under the delusion that they might compete in the Olympics this summer, when they clearly will not. They are supposed to be focused on social distancing and quarantines like the rest of us. Training for the Olympics is a lot harder, to put it mildly, when the nation has essentially closed for business. Preparing for the Olympics in these circumstances might be more stressful than actually participating in the Olympics; athletes can feel their dream slipping away, day by day, with no clear answer on how to stop it.

Pulling out now would be a show of strength by new USOC CEO Sarah Hirshland. She can show American athletes that they come first—ahead of IOC politics, even ahead of NBC money. She should release a statement saying, essentially: What we want, more than anything is for the Olympics to go on as planned this summer. Unfortunately, that is clearly not wise or safe. It is not fair for our athletes to train in limbo during such a difficult time. We are withdrawing from the 2020 Olympics with the hopes that the world’s greatest sporting event can be held in the summer of 2021.

Instead, Hirshland has been releasing statements that are just carefully crafted credibility killers. She said she has “complete and total empathy for the athlete community,” but she wants 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.” She told the Associated Press, “My role is not to make demands of those making decisions, but to bring forward solutions.”

That might sound good to her, but there is only one logical solution: Postponing the Games. Demanding a fair training environment for her athletes is her job. If Hirshland demands it now, it would enhance her standing later.

As Hirshland well knows, U.S governing bodies have had some serious credibility problems in the last few years. The country’s most famous gymnasts have been openly and justifiably disgusted by how USA Gymnastics and the USOC handled sexual assault allegations. USA Swimming has faced lawsuits over sex abuse as well. The U.S. Soccer federation has been in an inexplicably wrongheaded and nasty feud with the U.S. women’s team over pay; it just cost U.S. Soccer president Carlos Cordeiro his job.

Hirshland can’t fix all those problems by delaying the Olympics, of course—but she can make a bold statement about her organization’s priorities. She should do so now partly because it will make the IOC uncomfortable. Many American athletes would love a CEO who is willing to rattle some cages for them. They are sick of doing all the rattling themselves.

There are risks, of course. President Trump could slam her on Twitter, for whatever reasons. NBC might get really mad. The IOC could look for revenge down the line.

But speaking up now is the right thing to do, for both public health and U.S. athletes. The 2020 Olympics will be postponed no matter what Hirshland does. But she should do what Canada and Australia have already done. Her athletes would never be satisfied trailing the pack. Why is she?