It appears, with less than five months to go, the Tokyo Olympics will happen.
Organizers continue to insist the Games that were postponed last year, are on, despite lingering uncertainty.
Tokyo and other parts of Japan remain under a state of emergency because of the Coronavirus. And with the pandemic still not under control in many parts of the world, questions remain about whether Japan should host the global sporting event.
For aspiring Olympians, it’s the latest challenge as they try to focus on a goal that’s been a moving target for nearly a year.
Trying to train, and not fret
On an early February morning in Flagstaff, Ariz., there were a couple feet of fresh snow and roads were still a bit icy.
So American middle distance runner Colleen Quigley opted for some indoor treadmill work. Quigley specializes in the steeplechase – it’s a 3,000 meter, seven-and-a-half lap run with hurdles and a water pit to navigate. She was eighth in the event at the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro.
She decamped to Flagstaff for a block of high altitude training. Quigley, a teammate and their partners shared an Air B&B…along with Pie, Quigley’s two-year-old Bernese Mountain Dog.
Pie has been a constant and very present training companion during the pandemic.
“Like I’m trying to do Pilates over Zoom with my Pilates teacher,” Quigley laughed, “and Pie is on top of me. We call it ‘Pie-lates,’ because she’s like all up in my business. It’s comical.”
In Flagstaff, the work without Pie is hard, at nearly seven thousand feet.
“Y’know we’re training and cooking and doing our runs and our gyms and our track workouts,” she said, “and trying to get all the recovery we can in between all that. So, there’s not a ton of extra emotional energy to be spent.”
It’s a good thing because recent news had the potential to generate a lot of emotional energy.
The alarm bells were ominous, as medical experts warned the Games could be a massive COVID superspreader event. Up to 80% of the Japanese public didn’t want the games, and Olympic officials tried to quell the doubts.
Quigley says she has “kind of” paid attention.
“But also not let [the news] y’know psych me out or get me too upset because I’m going to have to keep training,” she said. “Until there’s any kind of announcement I have to keep training as if the games are going to happen. I can’t stress out about something we don’t know if that’s the case or not.”
A steady diet of uncertainty
“Honestly,” said longtime U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee senior sports psychologist Sean McCann, “[The recent news about Tokyo] is just the latest uncertainty. They’ve been getting a steady diet of it for the last 14 months.”
Now in his 30th year counseling Olympians and Paralympians, McCann says he’s never seen athletes face this sustained level of stress.
He says there’ve been more meltdowns, more anxiety, as athletes have encountered pandemic-induced obstacles. Athletes separated from teammates. Training routines altered.
“We’ve had some athletes who’ve had to change their training situations six times in the last seven months,” McCann said.
And then there are all the canceled competitions.
McCann says that’s prevented athletes from getting the results and data they use to let them know whether or not they’re progressing.
“Athletes typically rely on data to know that things are going ok,” McCann said. “And they’ve been absent data for a year now. That heightens the stress athletes always feel in an Olympic year, especially like January to March. That’s where summer athletes are like, ‘I hope it’s all coming together. I hope all this work is going to pan out.'”
Requiring more resilience
When the U.S. Wheelchair Rugby team got together last month in Birmingham, Ala., it wasn’t a bona fide competition. But it was a good measuring stick as the team held its first training camp in nearly eleven months.
For 35-year-old team co-captain Joe Delagrave, it was nice to get back on the court with teammates and off the computer.
“Some of those [team] Zoom meetings,” he said, “[they] don’t get the job done virtually that they do in-person, that’s for sure.”
Delagrave was a member of the U.S. Wheelchair Rugby team that won a bronze medal at the 2012 Summer Paralympics in London. But he failed to make the Olympic team four years later.
“I was devastated, I really was,” Delagrave said. “Obviously I wanted to go and win gold in Rio. I learned a valuable lesson along the way – that was, no medal, no title, no accolade is going to define me and who I am. My [three] kids don’t care if I’m a gold medalist, silver medalist, bronze medalist. Doesn’t matter. They want me to love them. Same goes for my wife. That’s never going to validate who I am as a husband, father, leader.”
Delagrave’s perspective doesn’t dim his quest for success in Tokyo.
“Obviously [we] want to win a gold medal,” he said. “For a lot of us [on the team], we’ve been around a long time. That’s the one thing we haven’t accomplished if you look at [all the] accolades, and one thing we want to cross off the list.”
There are 16 athletes on the training squad, including one woman. Wheelchair rugby “is co-ed” at the Paralympic level. Ultimately the squad will be cut down to 12 to represent the U.S. in Tokyo.
At the Birmingham training camp, the hopefuls embraced the ‘train-like-it’s-happening’ attitude toward a Paralympics scheduled to start August 24th. Delagrave says he and his teammates have endured the recent rollercoaster ride of ‘what-if’s’ about the games.
“You wake up and read an article,” Delagrave said, “and you’re like ‘yeah it’s probably going to be canceled’ and [then] everyone comes out from the [International Olympic Committee, International Olympic and Paralympic Committee, U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee] and [they’re] going ‘no it’s definitely going to happen.'”
“Some of that’s out of our control so, the old cliché of control what you can control is so true in this situation.”
It’s requiring athletes to be resilient, again. Which Delagrave says may come more naturally to Paralympians.
“Most of us on our team,” he said, “we’ve gone through something in our lives to get us to this point physically. For me, I broke my neck at 19-years-old and so I learned the art of resiliency early on. Y’know, either an adapt-or-die type of mentality. So when [the pandemic] came about obviously everyone in the world’s dealing with it. But I think Paralympians have a special gift to say, ok, I’m adapting to my surroundings every day. I’m adapting to whether something’s accessible or not accessible. I’m adapting to whether or not someone looks at me a certain way because I’m in a wheelchair.”
Something better than nothing
All athletes will have to adapt to very different Paralympics and Olympics, if they happen.
Stays at the athlete villages will be limited. Media interviews will be socially distanced, and limited. And, as with most other recent sporting events, it’s expected there’ll be severe limits on spectators.
“I would say, maybe April, early May, we would have to take this decision,” International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said late last month about a spectator plan.
For many athletes though, an altered Olympics still is an Olympics.
American runner Quigley is 28 and considers this to be her “prime Olympic year” for steeplechase. After an injury filled 2019, the Games’ pandemic delay actually helped her – she used 2020 to get healthy and now she believes a medal in Tokyo is a possibility.
“I remember getting frustrated with people my first time making the [Olympic] team [in 2016],” she said, “because they were like ‘oh my God, good luck and bring home a medal! We don’t care what color it is!’ and I remember thinking that’s so much pressure and I have no expectations of getting a medal. Like, I just wanted to make the final and not embarrass myself!
“This time around, I do have that goal for myself and I think while I know it’s not going to be easy, it’s not an unrealistic thing to say. I feel I’ve gotten to the point where I can say I want to earn a medal and people aren’t like, ‘you’re crazy. That’s never going to happen.’ [Instead] they’re like, ‘ok.'”
And so despite an Olympics that’ll have a much different look and feel, Quigley says she’s all in.
“I don’t think when you cross the line,” she said, “and give your best against the very best in the world, I don’t think there’ll be any feeling of like, ‘oh this sucks.’ There might not be the same vibe of the Olympic village or dining hall and stuff like that, but I think overall if you get a medal you’re still an Olympic medalist and there’s still a lot of pride and prestige in that.
“The most important part of the Games will still be there. Of course we’d rather have fans and we’d rather have the whole glitz and glam thing. But I think anyone you ask would say, I’d rather have it however we can, even if it’s stripped down. Rather than no Games at all.”
A torch, and hope for competition
The 2020 Tokyo Olympics were postponed a year ago this month. In a little more than three weeks the traditional torch relay is scheduled to start. If it does, it’ll offer a strong signal the delayed Games are on.
The targeted relay start date is March 25th in Fukushima prefecture. It’ll include a reported 10,000 runners, and spectators who are asked to socially distance and simply clap instead of shout or cheer.
More restrictions are expected in the next few months as organizers update the so-called Playbooks for a Games they hope is pandemic protected as much as possible.
So for now, athletes train. And hope in less than five months time, the battle against the Coronavirus is such that they can compete.