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Tokyo 2020 Olympics

Tokyo Olympics: Sports federations press IOC for clarity

As qualifying events are canceled, some anxious athletes look past Japan to 2024

The 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo are still on, but many qualifying events have been canceled, raising questions among athletes about how to qualify for the games.   © Reuters

TOKYO -- Olympic hopeful Nicole Stout knew her shot at the games was over when, in the middle of a competition in Argentina, the American received word that the International Judo Federation would postpone tournaments for the rest of March and April, two of which she needed to qualify for the Tokyo Games.

"Not having those qualifiers stunts a lot of athletes," said Stout, who ranks 104th in the world and would need to place above 30 to enter the Olympics. "Pretty much everyone at my club in New York has decided to focus on 2024. It feels so much out of our control at this point that it's more positive to focus on the next cycle."

As Stout and other athletes begin to accept that the summer games may not be held as planned, organizers continue to insist they will.

The buck may finally stop after a series of calls today and on Wednesday between the IOC, international sports federations, and national Olympic committees. The federations are expected to request extensions for their qualifying events, as fencing and triathlon have already done.

The decision to postpone or cancel the games has loomed over the International Olympic Committee in Switzerland, the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee and the government of Japan. The IOC is being advised on the situation by the World Health Organization, whose leader, Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, said he presently sees no reason to postpone the Games.

Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, has said the IOC will listen to the WHO on whether to proceed with the games.   © Reuters

National committees, who will ultimately make the call on whether to send their team to Tokyo, will advocate for their athletes' health and safety.

"It's too early for us to say whether we'll send our athletes or not," Vivien Lau, vice president of Hong Kong's Olympic committee, told the Nikkei Asian Review. "Even if you want to send your athletes, there are so many travel restrictions."

Japan, for one, has suspended visa-free entry for Hongkongers.

"Hong Kong's athletes are still preparing," Lau added. "They can't afford not to prepare. But the problem facing them is that qualifying events have been canceled."

Until this month, Hong Kong's judokas were still competing in South American qualifiers. The IOC and Tokyo organizers have set caps on the number of athletes in each event, as allowing more players than planned to participate would raise costs. But a rigid determination of who qualifies could spark complaints with the Court of Arbitration for Sport.

The rosters in some events like cycling, whose qualifying window opens two years before the Olympics, are already set. But federations for wrestling and tennis, among others, are hoping the coronavirus will have been contained by May to leave time for rescheduled qualifiers before the Olympics start on July 24.

United World Wrestling ultimately canceled its Asian qualifier, which was scheduled for the end of this month in China, then moved to Kyrgyzstan. The International Tennis Federation suspended tours until April at the earliest. In tennis, qualifying for the singles competition in the Olympics will be based on world rankings as of June 8.

"Players who wanted to earn points to qualify are very much affected by the suspensions," said a spokesperson for the Japan Tennis Association. "Now we are concerned whether there will be any alternative paths for those players."

Former world champion Yui Susaki of Japan, top, is one of many athletes waiting for postponed Olympic qualifiers to resume. (Takaki Kashiwabara)

Similar suspensions or cancellations have been announced for rowing, badminton, basketball, karate and boxing.

Callum Skinner, a member of the British Athletes Commission, said officials should make the call by April at the latest. "Especially in the strength and power-based sports, athletes start trying to be in their best physical form six months out from the games," he told Nikkei. That timeline would change if the Olympics are postponed until late 2020.

Nina Cutro-Kelly, an American judoka who is only a few points away from qualifying, told Nikkei she expects to qualify "as long as we can travel in May." But the U.S. has banned travel from countries in the European Union and imposed quarantines on travelers from others.

"It might be best to postpone [the Olympics] until the end of the year," she said.

But the Japanese government has made clear its intention to start the Olympics on time. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe's measures to contain the coronavirus have increased in the past three weeks, starting with a request to cancel mass events, followed by a nationwide closure of schools and travel restrictions, then legislation hurriedly passed giving him the power to declare a national emergency.

Abe has yet to make such a declaration. After a video conference on Monday with the leaders of G-7 countries, Abe said he gained support from his counterparts to hold the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics "in their entirety" as a symbol of the world's victory over COVID-19, which the World Health Organization declared a pandemic last week.

The spring sumo tournament in Osaka started on March 8 without an audience, a scenario that Abe is loath to consider for the Olympics. (Photo by Maho Obata)

"Every Olympic Games, there seems to be an issue. 'Will the facilities be ready? Is there a disease like Zika or COVID on the horizon?'" said Skinner, a retired cyclist who last competed in the 2016 Rio Olympics. "Athletes are used to uncertainties surrounding the games. We tend to focus on what's in our control."

Abe's remark to host the games "in their entirety" appears to suggest he is not considering staging the Olympics without an audience, or reducing the size of events. Sumo wrestlers and baseball players in Japan have competed without audiences -- a scenario that athletes can live with but would rather not.

"Emotionally, it's going to be very tricky because it's the biggest stage of your career," said Skinner. "It's really tricky to create that Olympic atmosphere when there's no one there. You wouldn't be able to share it with your friends and family."

In the meantime, athletes and federations are waiting on the IOC to do what is best for athletes and sport. "It's the IOC and the Tokyo organizing committee who need to decide," said Hong Kong Olympic executive Lau.

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