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Nevius: The Olympics we need get pushed further away

You know what the world could use about now?

The Olympic Games.

By now it is pretty clear that the coronavirus has a sense of irony. C’mon, you’ve got the NBA’s Rudy Gobert mocking virus precautions and then coming down with it just days later.

And you also have to admit that it is incredibly ironic that the single, unifying sports event that could have brought the world together was scheduled for the exact time when we are told to stay apart.

Because in a time of upset, illness and fear, a little shared sporting experience could go a long way. And sure, if it wasn’t for the virus the U.S. would have baseball or college hoops. But this is a worldwide pandemic. And a collective experience, when people all over the globe are sharing the same moment, might make us feel a little more connected to each other.

And at this point the Olympic Games are pretty much the only chance for doing that. World’s Fairs seem to have died out. The United Nations is too political. The best comparison for worldwide watching is probably the World Cup.

But the Olympics have something for everyone. Countries have specialties. Most American fans probably couldn’t tell you how many laps there are in a steeplechase. But in Kenya, which produces the greatest steeplechasers in history, the entire country stops when the Olympic final is run.

There is something about competing for your country - each nation sending their champions to represent them, under their flag. It’s inspirational. Empowering.

Which is probably part of the reason Japan and the International Olympic Committee were so ridiculously bullheaded about trying to hold the Summer Games this July.

In January, they insisted they hadn’t even considered changing the dates.

As recently as this month, an IOC spokesman bristled: “We’ve made a decision. The decision is: The games go ahead.”

Finally, after pushback that ranged from expressions of concern to outright boycotts - Canada, for one, said it wasn’t going to attend - the Japanese and the International Olympic Committee last week announced a one-year postponement - to 2021.

Which is definitely the right decision and has the support of virtually everyone in the Olympic community.

But it wasn’t taken lightly. Japan, for one, had six billion reasons to want to host the event. That’s how much, in dollars, economists estimate they will lose in corporate sponsorships and tourism.

It’s a lot of money, but there’s more at stake. The Japanese economy is not in a happy place and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has sold the idea of hosting the Olympics - investing an estimated $12 billion on infrastructure - as a jump-start for the country.

(To say Abe is all in on the Olympic effort is to undersell his commitment. At the 2016 Olympic closing ceremony, a news report said Abe “popped out of a green pipe” dressed as the Nintendo character Super Mario.)

Hosting the Olympics as a way to start an economic boom is a familiar tactic. I remember being told over and over at the Seoul, South Korea, Olympic Games that this was going to introduce Korea to the world.

Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. In 2016, Rio de Janeiro barely got its venues finished before the starting gun and had to deal with its own virus scare - Zika.

Another reason Tokyo didn’t want a postponement? The condos built for the athletes’ village and media housing have been sold. Buyers were supposed to move in right after the games. Now what?

Meanwhile, NBC has already sold some $1.25 billion in advertising. There will have to be give-backs or renegotiations. And that’s just one network in one country. Everybody’s going to have to figure out new numbers.

It is going to be a huge hassle.

Still, even with the problems, Japan is not completely unhappy about the postponement. Some thought the games might be completely canceled. So there’s that.

Which brings us, finally, to the athletes. The sneaky little secret about the Olympics is that a large chunk of the sports are pretty obscure and rarely make anyone famous. When was the last time you watched a sprint canoe race? Or dressage?

As an Olympian of one of the “other” sports once told me, “People don’t know who I am. And if I win a gold medal, people still won’t know who I am.”

Even the glamour events - swimming, track and field - don’t draw big crowds in non-Olympic years. The Olympics are their showcase, an event for which they spend four solitary years in preparation.

Which again, is ironic. Changing the athletic calendar by a year means athletes would love to get back in training as soon as possible - only to be told that their training sites are closed and hazardous.

A CNN reporter interviewed ?14-time world swimming champion Katie Ledecky about her practice. Ledecky said the Stanford swim center, where she trained, is closed, so she had to look for other options.

Eventually, the five-time Olympic gold medalist was reduced to doing workouts in her neighbor’s backyard pool. Still, she’s hoping for a payoff.

“I’m hopeful,” she said, “that next year’s Olympic Games will show the entire world coming together.”

We could use that.

Contact C.W. Nevius at cw.nevius@pressdemocrat.com. Twitter: @cwnevius

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