IT WAS FORESHADOWING of the worst kind. The day after the Olympic torch was lit in Olympia, the Greek authorities were forced to stop the torch relay after crowds ignored the request to stay away to limit the spread of the coronavirus.
Olympic track & field has never been immune from the tumult of the world’s news cycles. War canceled the Games scheduled for 1916, ’40 and ’44. Terrorism reared its head in Munich in ’72. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan led to boycotts in ’80 and ’84. And so on.
But never before has the world shut down completely as it is doing for COVID-19, a pandemic that threatens to leave millions of dead in its wake, along with the misery that broken economies will bring. “The virus has shown how swiftly it can move across borders, devastate countries and upend lives,” said United Nations Secretary General António Guterres in early April. “The worst is yet to come.”
There is simply no precedent to the shuttering of the athletic world. Even in the darkest days of World War II, fans with access to a newspaper could have read of the middle distance battles of Arne Andersson and Gunder Hägg, who totaled 19 World Records while neutral Sweden sat out. The NCAA and AAU meets didn’t skip a beat, albeit at a reduced level of performance in the later years.
But now the calendar is empty, and any events not canceled yet are hanging on the faintest thread of hope that this crisis with no clear endpoint will suddenly end. Athletes are struggling to get access to training facilities; training groups have been divided by quarantine.
What are the ramifications of all this for our sport and its fans? Let’s see if we can answer some big questions:
When Will Tokyo’s Olympics Be Staged?
At the end of March, the IOC decided on new dates for the Tokyo Games, effectively postponing the event for a year (at least). Set to run from July 23 to August 8, 2021, the XXXII Olympics will apparently still be tagged as Tokyo 2020, with track & field falling into it’s normal end-of-Games slot in the July 30-August 8 window.
Organizers say they wanted maximum time to deal with the “constantly changing landscape and the disruption” caused by the pandemic. Key to the scheduling was their wanting to minimize the effect on the global sports calendar while also allowing athletes enough time to complete the qualification process.
Says IOC head Thomas Bach, “Humankind currently finds itself in a dark tunnel. These Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 can be a light at the end of this tunnel.”
What About Olympic Tickets?
Tokyo organizers say they will work to ensure that all tickets already sold—more than 4 million—will transfer to the ’21 staging.
What About the Olympic Trials?
At this point, no new date has been set for the Trials, which were scheduled for June 19–28 of this year. TrackTown USA says it is working with the other stakeholders to finalize the new timing. That would in this case include the NCAA, as its meet—what should be the 100th edition—is scheduled to be held in Eugene on June 8–11.
“I don’t know when the Olympic Trials will be,” said USATF president Vin Lananna. “I would suspect that there will be a timeline based on the number of weeks prior to the Olympic Games and when the team needs to be selected.” For Rio in ’16, the IAAF’s qualifying period ended on July 11 (the day after the OT wrapped up) and Olympic track began on August 12.
As for eager fans, according to a statement from the organizers, “we are finalizing the policies and procedures for ticket customers to either retain their tickets for a rescheduled date or to request a refund.”
When Will The ’21 World Champs Be Held?
World Athletics has confirmed that its flagship meet (as will swimming’s Worlds) will also be delayed a year, to 2022, though no revision to the original dates (August 6-15) has been announced yet.
“Everyone needs to be flexible and compromise and to that end we are now working with the organizers of the World Athletics Championships in Oregon on new dates in 2022 for our World Athletics Championships,” read a WA statement.
Seb Coe has said, “I do want the treble to be on,” referring to athletes being able to compete not only in the WC, but the European Championships and Commonwealth Games that are also set for late-July/early-August of ’22. He suggested an early-July date for Worlds—before the other two meets—might work. Very few nations—most notably Britain—would be able to avail themselves of the 3-meet combo. Interestingly enough, Coe has previously been a proponent of ending the yearly calendar with the WC, so why not stage it at the end of August?
For those who thought the sport would benefit from an annual global championship, with World Champs being staged in every non-Olympic year, we’ll start to get an idea how the athletes will respond. Fans will have a 5-year string to look forward to: Tokyo OG ’21, Eugene WC ’22, Budapest WC ’23, Paris OR ’24, Nairobi [?] WC ’25.
How About A ’20 USATF Championships?
With the OT moving to ’21, will USATF host any sort of Nationals on the track this year? “We will have a championship event if it’s possible,” says PR director Susan Hazzard, adding that the advice of local health authorities would be crucial. Like everything else, it all depends on when a safe situation will be possible for athletes, officials and fans.
Will There Be A ’20 Diamond League?
The first 6 DL meets for this year—Doha, Nanjing, Shanghai, Stockholm, Naples & Rabat—have been postponed indefinitely. The next on the schedule is Eugene’s Pre Classic, set for June 6–7, but with the travel and visa restrictions currently in place, it’s hard for us to imagine an international competition being held anywhere in the U.S. in such a tight timeframe.
DL officials says they “remain committed to delivering a structured extensive season in 2020. The aim is to ensure that athletes can compete at the highest possible level this year, and that fans will be able to see their favorite stars in action, whenever the global health situation allows.”
As for Pre, meet director Tom Jordan told T&FN in early April, “The Prefontaine Classic is in a holding pattern. Along with World Athletics and the Wanda Diamond League, meet organizers are assessing the situation. Any announcement of changes will be made in the near future.”
What About Collegiate Meets?
Div. I athletes were already in Albuquerque preparing for the 56th NCAA Indoor, when some teams were summoned off the practice track to be told their conferences had pulled the plug on their participation. In short order, the NCAA canceled the meet itself, and then the entire collegiate outdoor schedule.
What About NCAA Eligibility?
By the end of the month the NCAA’s Division I Council agreed to allow another year of eligibility for athletes in spring sports. The provision does not apply to winter sports, so seniors hoping to compete in the NCAA Indoor will not get another chance.
The NCAA also signaled that it would allow extra scholarship allotments to give schools the option of maintaining their seniors on scholarship for another year. However, that may be a luxury that many schools simply can’t afford, especially if the pandemic limits next fall’s football revenue, resulting in financial shortfalls for many college athletic departments. “In our world, those are dollars we don’t have,” warned Andy Fee, the AD at Long Beach State.
Will There Be Any HS Track This Year?
With no central decision-making body, it’s not a surprise that the prep scene has delivered a mixed response on the pandemic. States that have closed their schools and moved to distance learning for the remainder of the year have generally canceled their spring seasons (California, Michigan, et al).
Other states have not pulled the trigger on cancellation yet. Florida and Texas, for instance, are both in postponement mode, and say they may be extending the championship calendar, with school set to reconvene May 4.
As for the post-season, the Brooks PR meet, USATF Junior nationals and USATF Junior Olympics have all been canceled. However, the National Scholastic Athletics Foundation is still accepting entries to its New Balance Nationals—but not accepting payment. Organizers say that a final decision will be made around April 30: “We continue to be cautiously optimistic we can host the meet on the scheduled dates, or in the weeks soon following.” ◻︎