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Barber: Postpone the 2020 Summer Olympics now

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The Olympic flame landed in Japan on Friday. It arrived in an airplane, the tail section of which bore the inscription “Hope Lights Our Way.”

But is it really hope that’s shining on the 2020 Summer Games right now? Or is it hubris?

Almost every major sports league and athletic event in the world has come to a halt, brought to its knees by a virus that’s like nothing I’ve seen in my lifetime. Yet four months before the scheduled opening ceremony in Tokyo, the International Olympic Committee and local Japanese officials are sticking to the company line: The show might go on.

But how can it? If it isn’t safe for NBA players and college hoopsters and European soccer lads to run around and sweat on each other, who would think it’ll be fine to stage a full slate of Olympic games in July and August? Being optimistic is a virtue. It goes far beyond optimism, however, to believe the world’s nations, a global patchwork of diverse healthcare systems, will have COVID-19 sufficiently tamed and treatable by midsummer.

They need to postpone the Tokyo Games to 2021, immediately.

It breaks my heart to say that, because I can’t conceive of a more suitable event to welcome the world back to normalcy. Imagine it’s July and we have recently emerged from our government- and self-imposed cocoons. We are collectively starved for both companionship and entertainment. And there are the Olympic Games, the ultimate symbol not only of athletic excellence, but also of international respect and cooperation.

It would be wonderful. But it’s a pipe dream, and it is irresponsible to suggest otherwise.

Even if we manage to avoid the massive spike of infections that doctors fear, it’s hard to imagine coronavirus won’t still be seen as a danger in July. You can picture some sort of ramping down, athletic events returning for athletes who test negative, before a crowd of unoccupied seats.

Would Olympic organizers stage the Summer Games in empty arenas and stadiums and gyms, on streets and rivers devoid of spectators? If so, doesn’t that defeat the spirit of the Games? Why not postpone? And even if it’s athletes only, you’re looking at somewhere around 10,500 competitors, plus coaches, support staff and media, flying in from every country on Earth, descending on Tokyo and swapping microbes.

In four months? Does that sound like a good idea?

And it’s not like the virus is the only hurdle to clear. Every person reading this knows somebody who just got laid off, someone who is worried about making rent next month. It’s only the front of the wave. We’re drifting toward a true economic calamity, and you can define “we” as broadly as you care to. In a best-case scenario, we’ll still be digging out of some of this rubble in July.

The counter-argument to immediate postponement is the wait-and-see approach that IOC president Thomas Bach and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe have urged. To paraphrase, we simply don’t know how the spread of the coronavirus will unfold. The world is different than it was two weeks ago. It will be different again in two weeks, and again in two months. There’s no reason to make the call now.

That’s more or less what the California Interscholastic Federation, which oversees high school athletics in the state, has announced for spring sports. It sort of makes sense for high schoolers. At that level, sports are more about participation than medals. You could organize a makeshift baseball season in a couple weeks. That just isn’t feasible for a massive logistical undertaking like the Olympics.

But here’s why it’s truly unconscionable to let the Summer Games sit there on the July calendar: It’s unfair to the athletes.

We may treat our sports gods as something more than human. We are reminded otherwise when Rudy Gobert and Kevin Durant and Sean Payton announce they have the coronavirus. They are healthier and wealthier than most of us, but still vulnerable on some level. That goes for Olympic athletes, too. Thursday, the South Korean national fencing team announced that three of its athletes tested positive.

By the time July rolls around, many Olympic athletes will be mourning parents, grandparents, coaches — even teammates. This summer is too soon for the Games.

More to the point, most athletes are unable to train for the foreseeable future. Wrestlers can’t warm up on the mat with other wrestlers. Volleyball players and boxers and gymnasts are forbidden from stepping foot in the gym. Water polo players can’t get in the pool together.

The Olympic Games bring together the world’s best athletes, all in peak form, all having focused their yearslong training on a single two-week display of prowess.

How can you ask these men and women to compete after disrupted workouts, or when circumstances have allowed some to train more than others?

At the very least, you’d be watching people run, jump and swim at less than 100% capacity. At worst, it’s an invitation to serious injuries.

That’s why Olympians are beginning to demand postponement. “Keep them safe. Call it off,” British four-time Olympic-medalist rower Matthew Pinsent said Wednesday on Twitter.

On Thursday, USA Swimming and Nic Coward, chief executive of UK Athletics (which governs international sports in Great Britain), both joined the chorus.

If organizers don’t postpone the Olympics, they are encouraging every participating athlete (and who even is that at this pre-qualifying stage?) to bend the rules of social distancing — to sneak in a track workout or sparring session or shootaround at the gym. It’s entirely the wrong message, and it puts the athlete in an unwinnable position.

As American gymnast Colin Van Wicklen told USA Today, “Even if they said, ‘We’re going to postpone this two years,’ then I know. Then I can say, ‘OK, I don’t have to stress the next three weeks trying to work out.’ I can self-quarantine and be safe and do everything they’re asking.”

Public service announcement: During a contagion, keeping Colin Van Wicklen healthy means keeping everyone a little healthier.

I’m not entirely sure what is taking the IOC so long. Are they selling a lot of Tokyo 2020 shirts? Are they reaping benefits from corporate sponsors? Probably. But I imagine stubborn pride has just as much to do with it. A lot of people have worked for a long time to prepare Tokyo for the Games. I understand why it would be hard to let that go. Yet reason must prevail. Postpone the Summer Olympics to 2021.

I just hope it doesn’t take something dramatic to spur the decision. On Tuesday, Kozo Tashima, a soccer executive serving as vice-chairman of the Japan Olympic Committee, announced he has the coronavirus. A week before that, Tashima had attended a board meeting with Tokyo Olympics chief Yoshiro Mori, who is 82 years old.

These men shouldn’t be endangering one another, and they shouldn’t be endangering their athletes, either.

You can reach columnist Phil Barber at 707-521-5263 or phil.barber@pressdemocrat.com. Follow him on Twitter: @Skinny_Post.

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