USA Swimming calls for postponement of 2020 Olympics amid coronavirus disruption

USA Swimming has called for the postponement of the 2020 Olympics. (AP/Mark Schiefelbein)

USA Swimming, the national governing body for the sport in the United States, has called for the postponement of the 2020 Olympics amid widespread disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

In a letter to U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee CEO Sarah Hirshland on Friday, USA Swimming CEO Tim Hinchey “respectfully requested” that the USOPC “advocate for the postponement of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 by one year,” to the summer of 2021.

“We urge the USOPC, as a leader within the Olympic Movement, to use its voice and speak up for the athletes,” Hinchey concluded.

USA Swimming’s letter to USOPC

The letter – which was distributed to USA Swimming stakeholders, obtained by Yahoo Sports, first reported by USA Today, and later released publicly – reads, in full:

As a leader to our 400,000 members and many of the world’s top Olympic champions, I feel compelled to speak out about the pending Olympic Games in Tokyo in July 2020.


Our top priority at USA Swimming has been, and will continue to be, the health and safety of our athletes, coaches, staff, volunteers and other members.


As this global pandemic has grown, we have watched our athletes’ worlds be turned upside down and watched them struggle to find ways to continue to prepare and train – many for the biggest competitive opportunity of their lives.


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.


The right and responsible thing to do is to prioritize everyone’s health and safety and appropriately recognize the toll this global pandemic is taking on athletic preparations. It has transcended borders and wreaked havoc on entire populations, including those of our respected competitors. Everyone has experienced unimaginable disruptions, mere months before the Olympic Games, which calls into question the authenticity of a level playing field for all.


Our athletes are under tremendous pressure, stress and anxiety, and their mental health and wellness should be among the highest priorities.


It is with the burden of these serious concerns that we respectfully request that the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee advocate for the postponement of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 by one year.


There are no perfect answers, and this will not be easy; however, it is a solution that provides a concrete path forward and allows all athletes to prepare for a safe and successful Olympic Games in 2021.


We urge the USOPC, as a leader within the Olympic Movement, to use its voice and speak up for the athletes.

The reasoning for Olympic postponement

Hinchey, in the letter, raised several concerns that have spread throughout the Olympic community in recent weeks. Qualifiers have been postponed or canceled. Pools have been closed. Katie Ledecky, the most accomplished female swimmer in the world, can’t find one to train in.

The result, Hirshland admitted earlier on Friday, is “extreme anxiety for many of us, certainly for those athletes who are incredibly confused, facing an enormous amount of ambiguity about what may come this summer.”

And so, Hinchey wrote: “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.

“It has transcended borders and wreaked havoc on entire populations, including those of our respected competitors. Everyone has experienced unimaginable disruptions, mere months before the Olympic Games, which calls into question the authenticity of a level playing field for all.

“Our athletes are under tremendous pressure, stress and anxiety, and their mental health and wellness should be among the highest priorities.”

USA Swimming CEO Tim Hinchey. (AP/Chris Carlson)

The latest, and biggest, call for postponement

On a conference call with reporters Friday morning, Hirshland and USOPC chair Susanne Lyons avoided mentioning the possibility of postponement. Instead, they fell in line with the International Olympic Committee, which has said that it “remains fully committed” to holding the Games this summer in Tokyo. And just last week, Japan’s Olympic minister said: “The IOC and the organizing committee are not considering cancellation or a postponement – absolutely not at all.”

The USOPC reiterated its stance in a statement Friday evening, saying it has “complete and total empathy for the athlete community,” but that it 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.”

Various athletes and Olympic officials, however, have begun to call for postponement. Kaori Yamaguchi, a member of Japan’s Olympic committee, is among them. Nic Coward, chairman of the United Kingdom’s track and field federation, said Friday that the 2020 Games “absolutely” have to be called off.

USA Swimming’s letter is a major step, and perhaps the biggest yet, toward serious consideration of postponement. The national governing body is one of the most influential in the U.S., and in the world. It oversees some of the planet’s biggest Olympic stars, including Katie Ledecky. The letter would not have been sent without their support.

"I am 100 percent behind the leadership of USA Swimming on that,” Ledecky’s coach, Greg Meehan, told Yahoo Sports on Friday afternoon, shortly after the letter was made public. “I’m grateful that our CEO, Tim Hinchey, took a strong stance.”

“It was time, at this point, for a couple reasons,” Meehan continued. “The level playing field is a big issue right now as you look at the training situations here. And then, quite frankly, I think there’s a pretty strong component of anxiety and stress among these athletes as they are thinking about the things they are not doing currently that they know they need to be doing if the Games are still on. The mental health for these young people are being challenged, and I think that’s as important a part of this story as anything.

“So I’m very grateful that USA Swimming has pushed forward with this, and I absolutely 100 percent agree. I hope that the USOPC listens and they can take a strong stance toward the IOC. Part of the spirit of the Olympic Games is to bring the world together. How can we do that in this climate? It just doesn’t make sense. So I was glad to see that letter was sent."

Maya DiRado, a gold medalist at the Rio 2016 Games, tweeted: “Absolutely the right move. Athletes shouldn’t have to put themselves and others at risk to try to keep training through these wild times.”

The logistics of postponing to 2021

A postponement to 2021, however, would be troublesome in its own right. James Bulley, a senior member of the London 2012 organizing committee, explained the many challenges Yahoo Sports in February. “When you’re preparing for the Games, there are so many dimensions to it,” he said. “Obviously, athletes and athlete training. … Then there’s the venues. You have use agreements in place with all of the venues. Some of these might be convention centers, exhibition centers. They might be arenas, and so on, which will have other events already booked for the following year. So you have a number of issues relating to that.

“You then have the broadcasters, they’re all geared up. Twenty-thousand of the world’s media, broadcasters and press, accredited for the Olympic Games. They’re going to all have their schedules ready and prepared. The cost of all of that, the logistics, flights and accommodations all booked — there are major, major implications to just putting it into the following year.”

The main issue, IOC member Dick Pound told Yahoo Sports last month, is “your sponsors and broadcasters, and the forward commitments of hotels, and the Olympic Village, and all that sort of stuff. You’d have to sit down with the Tokyo organizers and say, ‘Listen, can you hold all this together for a year if necessary?’ And that you simply don’t know.”

There are also countless events, in many of the 33 different Olympic sports, that are scheduled for the summer of 2021, and that would have to be postponed or canceled themselves. The World Athletics Championships are among them.

“One-year postponement would bring enormous problems and costs,” Sidney Levy, CEO of the Rio 2016 organizing committee, told Yahoo Sports last month. “But it is feasible.”

Yahoo Sports’ Jeff Eisenberg contributed reporting.

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