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DENVER — The head of USA Swimming urged the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee to push for a 12-month postponement of this summer’s Games in Tokyo, signaling the first fissure between powerful American factions attempting to maneuver the U.S. team through the coronavirus pandemic.
CEO Tim Hinchey sent a letter Friday to his counterpart at the USOPC, Sarah Hirshland, calling for the delay.
“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 response, USOPC leaders said they understand athletes’ concerns and are prioritizing athlete safety and health, but the IOC, World Health Organization and Japanese government should be given more time to decide what to do. The opening ceremony is scheduled for July 24.
“They (the IOC) believe that it is premature to make a final call on the date of the Games,” Sarah Hirshland and USOPC chairwoman Susanne Lyons said in a joint statement, “and we believe that we should afford them the opportunity to gather more data and expert advice before insisting that a decision be made.”
Hours earlier, the USOPC leaders at a media availability also essentially had repeated the International Olympic Committee line: Though athlete safety is a top priority, it is too soon to employ drastic measures.
They showed no appetite for getting out front on the postponement issue, which is gaining more steam among athletes, some Olympic leaders and now, one of America’s most high-profile national governing bodies.
“The decision about the Games doesn’t lie directly with us,” Lyons said. “It lies with the World Health Organization, the Japanese government and the IOC. Under no circumstance would the USOPC send athletes into harm’s way if it didn’t think it was safe.”
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 United States, which brings 550 athletes and its billion-dollar broadcaster, NBC, to the show every two years.
Also, USA Swimming has a big voice in the Olympics at all levels. U.S. swimmers won 33 medals at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, more than any other nation in any other sport and more than the total medals won by all but seven of the 206 countries that participated.
“We urge the USOPC, as a leader within the Olympic Movement, to use its voice and speak up for the athletes,” Hinchey wrote.
At their earlier media availability, Hirshland and Lyons reiterated much of what has already been said by IOC president Thomas Bach, whose most recent interview in the New York Times stated that plans are going forward for a Tokyo Games, whether they start July 24 or some other time.
A growing number of athletes want 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 posted on Twitter late Thursday.
But there is also a contingent of less-vocal athletes who are not speaking up as loudly on social media and “for whom this feels like their opportunity, their only opportunity,” Hirshland said.
“It adds to the complication factor” in making a decision, Hirshland said.
Han Xiao, chairman of the athletes advisory council, confirmed that and said it’s 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.
Many athletes’ training regimens have disintegrated, as gyms, pools and communal workout spaces around the country have been closed. The USOPC has closed its Olympic training centers to all but the 180 or so who live at them, and many in those groups have chosen to leave campus.
Hirshland said it needed to be clear to every elite and recreational athlete out there that “as Americans, the Number One priority needs to be health and safety,” and not training.
The USOPC has increased availability of mental and emotional counseling, 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 and field at Olympic trials in June, all of which are in jeopardy.
Bach 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 at the national and international levels to adapt in the event the Olympics take place without a traditional qualifying structure.
While Hinchey said the chances for a level playing field are 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.”
Information from NBC Sports contributed to this report.
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