It’s fair to say the International Olympic Committee (IOC) were put in an unenviable position of postponing Tokyo 2020 until 2021. In my role at Global Athlete, I was one of hundreds of athletes calling for the IOC to listen to us, put welfare first and postpone the Olympic and Paralympic Games until the Covid-19 pandemic is under control.
That being said, it wasn’t an easy decision for us athletes either. Athletes prepare for an Olympic Games for four to 10 years, so it’s not an easy decision to postpone. Some athletes who were targeting 2020 as their last Olympics may not be able to compete at all, as an extra year of intense training presents a risk to both physical and mental health. Half of Olympic sports haven’t finished their qualification schedule for the Games due to cancellations around Covid-19. Some potential Olympians may miss out on selection.
On physical health, there are 11,000 athletes and thousands of additional support staff from over 200 countries who would have come together in a compact village, which is obviously not advisable in a global pandemic. Of that, 700-1,000 athletes at the London 2012 Olympics were diagnosed asthmatics, putting them in an ‘at risk’ category. With respiratory illness reported as the most common athlete illness at an Olympic Games, this could lead to ‘false positives’ and greater anxiety among healthy athletes.
Separately, it’s well documented that Olympic athletes face financial struggles between Games. In the UK, teams work on a four-year funding cycle, so this presents a major challenge if additional funding is not provided. With the world likely to enter a Covid-19-induced recession, sponsorship opportunities will be few and far between.
The postponement of Tokyo 2020 can have a positive effect on the wider Olympic movement, though. The Olympics will bounce back and postponement presents an amazing opportunity to use the power of the Games to bring the world back together when we enter the post-pandemic era.
Here are a few reasons how:
• Content: A postponed Games will put athlete stories, rather than performances, at the heart of any coverage. I have no doubt there will be many superb narratives that will become apparent as a result of the current measures in place. This will provide great content for media going forwards, putting athletes and their sponsors – not least their human side – firmly in the spotlight.
• The Alternative: If the Games were to go ahead as scheduled, the media focus would be on COVID-19 and possible outbreaks, instead of the athletes who have worked so hard to get there. Australia and Canada said they would boycott the Games and more would have followed if the original date was kept. This would devalue any results, and it goes without saying that you want the greatest athletes to be present. A good example is the Zika virus at Rio 2016, where even with limited concerns a number of athletes pulled out.
• A Summer of Sport: 2021 is set to be an exceptional summer of sport – Euro 2021, the Rugby League World Cup, the Ryder Cup and the British & Irish Lions Tour, to name a few major tournaments set to take place. Athletes who make their squads are going to be part of something amazing and should look to market themselves to brands who don’t want to miss out.
In short, while no athletes wanted a delayed Olympics, it’s our job to overcome obstacles and succeed in any given situation – and that is what we will do.
Callum Skinner is best known for his achievements at the 2016 Olympics in Rio, where he claimed a gold and silver medal, as well as an Olympic record. After retiring in 2018, he has successfully built a career in sports marketing and continues to push for improving athlete rights. In recent years, he has been a prominent voice on anti-doping, even delivering a speech on clean sport at the White House. He also sits on both the Team GB and UK Anti-Doping Athletes Commissions and is Lead Athlete at the athlete movement for positive change in sport, Global Athlete. Right Formula is proud to support Callum in his work for cycling start-up HindSight, Global Athlete and other projects.