Coronavirus: Olympics plans 'insensitive, irresponsible', says IOC member; athletes accuse them of risking their health

MONTREAL (AFP, REUTERS) – International Olympic Committee (IOC) member Hayley Wickenheiser said on Tuesday (March 17) that vows to press ahead with plans for the Tokyo Games are “insensitive and irresponsible”.

Wickenheiser, a member of Canada’s women’s ice hockey team that won four straight Olympic golds between 2002 and 2016, made her comments on Twitter.

The 41-year-old IOC Athletes Commission member was speaking as the IOC said there was no need for “drastic decisions” over the staging of the July 24-Aug 8 event, insisting there are still “more than four months to go before the Games”.

It made the statement after European soccer body Uefa postponed its 2020 European Championship, which was due to begin on June 12, to 2021.

IOC and Japanese officials have insisted they are working towards staging the Olympics as planned despite the escalating coronavirus pandemic. However, the IOC will hold a call with its National Olympic Committees on Wednesday.

“This crisis is bigger than even the Olympics,” said Wickenheiser. “We don’t know what’s happening in the next 24 hours, let alone the next three months.”

She pointed to the disruption the pandemic had already caused to athletes preparing for the quadrennial Games. Athletes have been prevented from accessing training facilities because of virus-related lockdowns, while others have seen key competitions and qualifying events cancelled.

“Athletes can’t train, attendees can’t travel plan. Sponsors and marketers can’t market with any degree of sensitivity,” Wickenheiser said.

“I think the IOC insisting this will move ahead, with such conviction, is insensitive and irresponsible given the state of humanity.”

On the same day, reigning Olympic pole vault champion Katerina Stefanidi accused the IOC of putting the health of elite athletes at risk by telling them to continue training for the Tokyo Games.

“There is no postponement, no cancellation. But it (the IOC) is putting us at risk,” the Greek told Reuters in an exclusive interview. “We all want Tokyo to happen but what is the Plan B if it does not happen? Knowing about a possible option has a major effect on my training because I may be taking risks now that I would not take if I knew there was also the possibility of a Plan B. We have to decide whether to risk our health and continue training in the current environment.”

Her comments were echoed by Britain’s heptathlon world champion Katarina Johnson-Thompson, who said she is returning home from a locked-down France and feels under pressure to train.

“The IOC advice ‘encourages athletes to continue to prepare for the Olympic Games as best they can’ with the Olympics only four months away, but the government legislation is enforcing isolation at home with tracks, gyms and public spaces closed,” she wrote on Twitter. “I feel under pressure to train and keep the same routine which is impossible.”

Stefanidi also argued that the different levels of training had also created a potentially unfair advantage for some athletes. She said some countries, like Greece, had shut all facilities, while in some other countries like the United States or Sweden, some facilities were still open.

“My rival Sandi Morris, for example, has been training the past week because her facility is still open,” she said. “We have to have a realistic image from the IOC. They have to show that they understand.”

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