What Now for the 2020 Olympic Games?

By Courtney Rockness and Gloria Coleman

Following the COVID-19 outbreak and its rapid evolution into a worldwide pandemic, questions arose surrounding the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. Across the globe, countries canceled major sporting events, restricted travel, and still knew so little about the virus. The result? 

The 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games were postponed to 2021.

Of course, this decision didn’t come as a shock to many in light of the global pandemic. Yet it is unprecedented when looking at overall Olympic history. Since their modern beginnings in 1896, the Games have been canceled only three times. Each time was due to war.  

This is the first time in modern history that the Games have ever been postponed. As one could imagine, this unexpected change in plans has had major impacts on athletes and event organizers. 

Countries are making adjustments case-by-case, sport by sport. We took a look at two sports in the United States: running and swimming. 

Olympic Runners

In the world of running, we already know some of the 2021 U.S. Olympic competitors, but not all. It depends on the event in question and whether or not its trials even happened in 2020.

The U.S. Track and Field Trials, for instance, usually take place in late spring or early summer the year of the games. Therefore, they never actually took place in 2020 due to cancellations of all sporting events. So we knew as early as last April that the Track and Field Trials would take place in 2021. There is a lot that can change in a year in terms of who are the best competitors. So it makes sense that selections wouldn’t happen until just before the Olympics themselves. 

What impact has this had on the track athletes themselves? Molly Huddle, a professional distance runner and US Olympic favorite, talks about her experience in light of the coronavirus. She explains how the lost season altered her training schedule, especially as one of the older runners in the field. She is finding ways to stay competitive and in shape, and still has her sights set on Tokyo 2021.

For other athletes, the postponement has changed their Olympic dreams entirely. For Lolo Jones, a former Track Olympian, the pandemic took a mental toll, impacting her decision to compete in Tokyo. She is one of the few athletes who has competed in both the summer and winter games (track and bobsled). So now with the dates so close together, she had to decide which she would focus on qualifying for. She recently made the decision to focus on Winter 2022 rather than try to qualify this upcoming summer. 

Other running events, such as the marathon, already have an Olympic Team for 2021. The U.S. decided teams in February 2020, just before everything shut down. Despite other countries postponing their trials- for instance, the UK moved theirs to March 2021– the U.S. will not rerun. 

So the athletes get more time to prepare, knowing a year ahead that they will be running in the Olympics. And they have some time in-between to do other important things, like having a baby or becoming the world’s fastest turkey

Olympic Swimmers

On the swimming side, following the shutdown last March many athletes had to suddenly find creative ways to practice. Especially the USA Swim Team as they prepared for the Olympic Swim Trials, scheduled for June 21-28 in Omaha, Nebraska. 

They all found creative ways to practice. Michael Andrew found an open public residential pool for practice when his normal training pool in San Diego closed. Dutch Olympic long-distance swimmer Sharon van Rouwendaal posted a video explaining how she continued to swim in an inflatable pool. She mentions how she is not able to swim for more than 45 minutes, considering the cold spring weather.

There were also athletes who did what they could at home in order to obey the stay at home orders. Katie Ledecky posted on her instagram about her practicing explosive starts without a pool. Simone Manuel also demonstrated via social media how she practices her turns on dryland. Many other swimmers continued to follow suit. 

USA Swimming got the ball rolling to postpone the Games, according to Katie Ledecky. The swimmers were not able to practice and would not be in shape had the Trials been 3 months out. But now with 12-13 months to prepare, they can to take more time off without serious consequences. Other sports who were still able to train were not as keen on the postponement in the beginning. But for swimming more time was ideal.  

“It was really really stressful trying to find training time and trying to get pool space with no pools open. But after the news dropped, the dire need for water time has gone down significantly,” Erica Sullivan said on Swimming World Magazine.

Said news dropped on March 24. Other U.S. swimmers, Caeleb Dressel and Ryan Murphy, took it well too. Dressel said, “I felt I’ve had a great year so far, so why would I be the one to be upset to have another year to get the ball rolling?” He must have believed these words. Soon after, he proceeded to smash a few of the US and World Records at the ISL 2nd Annual Championship.

COVID stopped most other competition, although the ISL teams were able to meet for their 2nd annual season Final. Despite staying in a strictly enforced bubble in Budapest, the athletes were excited to still be able to race internationally.

As of now, the US Olympic swim team trials are still in Omaha, Nebraska, at the CHI Health Center. They will take place on June 13-20, 2021. It’s a week earlier than usual, since coaches want an extra week of training camp on their own. They will overlap 2 days with the NCAA Baseball College World Series, also held in Omaha. 

These trials will mark the first inclusion of the 800 meter men’s freestyle and 1500 meter women’s freestyle as events. Unfortunately, they will also mark the first trials in Omaha without Michael Phelps, who retired after the Rio 2016 Games. 

What to Expect for 2021

Despite pandemic challenges, the Japanese Prime Minister recently released a statement that they will not cancel the 2021 Olympics. This is good news for athletes, who already have had a whirlwind of a year in 2020. 

The Tokyo governor, Yuriko Koike, has already mentioned a few regulations in place for the 2021 Tokyo Games. This includes border control and athlete bubbles, mandatory COVID testing for everyone, and possibly even no spectators. The no fans rule is still up in the air, however; IOC Vice President says that crowds are an essential part of the Games. 

The Olympics is going to look different in 2021, but hopefully it will provide some sense of normalcy. The world unity and sportsmanship it fosters might be just what people need during this pandemic.