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Could the Olympics be cancelled outright? 'I think there is a chance. Let's be realistic'

Olympian and current secretary of the European Olympic Committee Athletes Commission, David Harte, speaks to The42.

David Harte is an Irish hockey player also working on the administrative side of sport.
David Harte is an Irish hockey player also working on the administrative side of sport.
Image: Caroline Quinn

ONE OF THE defining characteristics of the coronavirus pandemic is the uncertainty it has prompted and that extends to the sports world.

The Olympic Games, with the opening ceremony due to begin on 24 July, is potentially the next big casualty in the raft of recent postponements.

The organisers of Tokyo 2020 have so far refused to budge and are determined it will go ahead as planned.

The event is scheduled to feature 33 different sports, 206 nations and over 11,000 athletes.

However, the likelihood of a July start appears increasingly doubtful.

The closest equivalent in terms of scale, the European Championships in football, has been put back by 12 months to the summer of 2021.

While the Olympics starts weeks after the Euros was originally due to finish and doesn’t take place in several cities as opposed to one, the former is more complicated to arrange in many respects.

For instance, qualification has not even been completed for a number of Olympic events.

One man in a better position than most to ascertain exactly what is going on and how the situation develops from here is David Harte.

Harte is an Olympian himself, having been part of the first Irish hockey outfit to qualify for the Games since 1908 in Rio 2016, and the first Irish team to qualify since the basketball side in 1948.

The Cork native, who is currently based in Utrecht where he plays hockey, is also influential on the administrative side of sport. He is currently secretary of the European Olympic Committee Athletes Commission as well as being co-chair of the European Hockey Federation Athletes Commission and is sitting on the Olympic Federation of Ireland’s Athletes’ Commission.

He was one of around 200 athlete representatives who sat in on a call yesterday with Thomas Bach, the current President of the International Olympic Committee, as he addressed concerns over this year’s Games.

“I do believe it will go ahead,” Harte tells The42. “On the other side of it, I don’t think it’s going to go ahead in the time-frame that’s suggested.

“Tokyo have signed a contract with the IOC that the 2020 Games obviously have to go ahead in 2020.

“So do I think it should go ahead? Right now, I don’t think it should go ahead. The opening ceremony on 24 July? Absolutely not.

There’s inequality towards training for athletes across different countries. You look at the likes of Spain or Italy, those countries are in major lockdown, there’s no exemptions for professional or Olympic athletes training in the gyms. Their [rivals] have the advantage.

“The fair play that the Olympic movement would hold itself to is not there and I don’t believe with the panic in the world, the pandemic of the coronavirus, we should expect the athletes to try to mentally more so than physically prepare that the Games would go ahead at the end of July.”

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He continues: “The takeaway from the phone call is that the IOC sounded pretty adamant they weren’t going to make any decision too hastily. The day-to-day or hour-to-hour digital conversation changes constantly, but they will adhere to what the World Health Organisation are advising us to do.

I was slightly disappointed in one way, but I do get it. There was a major discussion that Thomas Bach was referring to — leaked information that the Tokyo Olympics was going to be cancelled. I think it was by a Japanese member and the Japanese stock market fell 16-17%. So there’s the financial aspect behind it. Billions of dollars have been pumped into the event and I really hope from an athlete side of things that, as well as volunteers, spectators and coaching staff, everyone involved, their health is being considered and that will be seen as the priority at this moment in time.

“In this situation, the key message I’ve taken away was from Kirsty Coventry, a Zimbabwean former athlete and chair of IOC athletes commission. She was basically saying the takeaway for the representatives should be passing on correct and sound information, rather than fake news.

“Between the coronavirus and all the other information going around in WhatsApp messages or emails and Facebook, that’s obviously not helping the situation. She was saying the priority now is to keep the athletes as relaxed and in as good spirits as possible. That’s why today they talk about the continuation and handing on of the Olympic torch behind closed doors with no spectators in an open message that the IOC still has the confidence that the Olympics in Tokyo 2020 will continue.”

olympic-flame-lighting-ceremony-in-athens IOC President Thomas Bach is determined that the Olympics go ahead as planned. Source: DPA/PA Images

And has Harte been in touch with the Irish athletes since to relay these messages?

“Our Irish athletes commission, which is brilliant and led by a fantastic chair in Shane O’Connor, he was also on the call as well as our athletes’ representative, and athlete liaison and PR officer Heather Boyle, and there was an open opportunity for athlete members to get on the phone as well. So they were also on the go and our Whatsapp group was flying backwards and forwards with regards to the information and takeaways and what was being said. The main questions that everyone asked were: ‘Is the Olympics going to go ahead? Is there going to be a cut-off point? Is there a date to go listen guys, I’m not saying it’s going to be cancelled but is there a point where athletes can see that a decision will be made?’

“Right now, it is up in limbo, but those were danced around a little bit too much, it was almost politician-style answers that were being given back to the athletes asking the questions.”

Postponing the Olympics would impact athletes not only from a logistical point of view, but also financially in some cases.

“There’s a lot of knock-on effects that I didn’t even think about until I was on the phone call yesterday,” Harte explains. “For the perceived smaller sports and the sponsorship that goes along with it and the sponsorship for individual athletes, perhaps there will be some monetary [aspect] for participation in the Olympic Games. Of course, if it doesn’t go ahead or it’s postponed and goes outside that contractual agreement, I’m not sure where some athletes might fit, which can be a huge burden for them financially.

“But athletes who are not the Usain Bolts and Michael Phelps’ and are putting their professional life on hold to pursue their dreams of going to the Olympic Games, the knock-on effects of postponement might not be the worst-case scenario. They’d have perhaps more build-up, more opportunity for exposure and involvement with teams and individuals. But the cancellation would be devastating.”

And could Harte envisage outright cancellation as a genuine possibility?

I think there is a chance. Let’s be realistic. As positive as we want to be and I would love to see the Olympic Games held in Tokyo for the 11,000 odd athletes that will be competing there, it’s just outside of people’s controls. It’s not going to be the IOC, it’s going to be based on what the World Health Organisation deems fit and seeing how the spread of this virus goes around the world. It’s not just going to stop in weeks or months and the fact that it’s moved away from China and the epicentre is now in Europe.

“The European athletes will have a huge mountain to climb with regards training, like I said earlier. They already were at a disadvantage with regards athletes being able to train — there’s lockdowns in certain countries. I read an article today — the chair of the Australian Olympic Committee was behind the IOC saying that the Games will go ahead at the designated times and dates, so it’s not for any individual to say it or not, but I do think the smartest decision for all people involved and for the well-being of everybody is to make sure the pandemic doesn’t affect the athletes’ families and friends. 

“I put out something on social media recently, no hockey for a number of weeks because the professional league in the Netherlands has been cancelled until at least the middle of April. Of course, it’s shit for us, as players that’s what you’re here to do. But at the end of the day, it’s not life or death, which is basically what’s happening with this coronavirus.”

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About the author:

Paul Fennessy

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