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U.S. Olympic chief tells why she won’t demand IOC postpone Games for coronavirus

“My role … is to bring forward solutions,” says Sarah Hirshland, CEO of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.
A security guard walks past the Olympic rings near the New National Stadium in Tokyo, Monday, March 23, 2020. The IOC will take up to four weeks to consider postponing the Tokyo Olympics amid mounting criticism of its handling of the coronavirus crisis that now includes a call for delay from the leader of track and field, the biggest sport at the games. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)
A security guard walks past the Olympic rings near the New National Stadium in Tokyo, Monday, March 23, 2020. The IOC will take up to four weeks to consider postponing the Tokyo Olympics amid mounting criticism of its handling of the coronavirus crisis that now includes a call for delay from the leader of track and field, the biggest sport at the games. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong) [ JAE C. HONG | AP ]
Published Mar. 23, 2020

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DENVER — The CEO of the U.S. Olympic team is well aware of the power her country wields in a situation like this, with the coronavirus raging across the globe and the IOC taking its time before deciding whether to postpone this summer’s Games in Tokyo.

She’s not in a big rush to use it.

“My role is not to make demands of those making decisions, but to bring forward solutions,” Sarah Hirshland, the CEO of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, told the Associated Press on Sunday.

Hirshland and the USOPC leadership have endured their share of criticism for not calling on the International Olympic Committee to postpone the Games, a move being made by a growing number of athletes and organizations, including a couple major ones in America: USA Swimming and USA Track and Field.

She said she can handle the heat but wants people to know that she’s doing her best to make sure that postponing is the correct call and, maybe more important, what the next step should be. At the heart of that effort is a survey the USOPC sent to around 4,000 Olympic hopefuls over the weekend, asking them about training conditions and the medical conditions in the places they live, along with their thoughts about when the Olympics should take place.

The IOC has asked every member country for details about conditions in their locales.

“We’re hearing from the athletes loud and clear, and I can guarantee you, the IOC is going to hear from us, loud and clear,” Hirshland said.

But, as she’s finding out, it might not be practical to decide everything based on majority rule or the loudest voice. She spoke of one survey response from an athlete who took a yearlong sabbatical to get ready for the Olympics, whose training hasn’t been curtailed much, and who has no wiggle room to push an effort to make the Games into 2021 or beyond.

“These are real scenarios we’re facing,” Hirshland said. “The beauty of the diversity leads to having to be real thoughtful and take this almost on a case-by-case basis, and think about how we mitigate these challenges as best we can.”

It could help explain the more tempered statement she put out Sunday, along with Han Xiao, chairman of the athletes’ advisory council. They were part of a board meeting held after the IOC said it might need up to four weeks to decide what step to take.

“We know the difficult obstacles ahead, and we are all appreciative that the IOC has heard our concerns and needs, and is working to address them as quickly as possible,” the statement said.

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Hirshland also pushed back on the idea that the statements from the U.S. track and swimming federations — each of which called on her to employ the USOPC’s leadership role to ask for a postponement — amounted to a blindside or a crack in unity. She said she spoke with USA Swimming CEO Tim Hinchey long before he sent the letter that was later made public.

“Both sports have a very large population, from grassroots to elite athletes, and they need their athletes to know they’re being heard,” she said. “They want their athletes to know their concerns are being passed on, and I can confirm those concerns are being passed on.”

Those concerns will be going, Hirshland said, straight to the IOC. And though many signs point to an inevitable postponement of the Games, it’s not part of the message the USOPC is sending there.

“It’s really important for us to understand the totality of the environment our athletes are facing,” she said. “It’s a practical reality that there’s no easy answer right now.”

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