The expectation was for a spectacle. Blindingly bright fireworks, inspiring Japanese music, breathtaking kimonos and a kaleidoscope of colors draped across the floor of Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium. Alex Obert would absorb it all marching behind the American flag, one of 11,000 athletes from 206 countries, nearly all of them angling for face time on a television broadcast watched by half the world.
But the coronavirus pandemic changed everything.
Now, instead of participating in the Tokyo Olympics opening ceremonies on July 24, Obert has quite different plans.
Gyms are closed in Arizona, where the 28-year-old water polo player lives. The neighbors in Obert’s apartment building are less than understanding of the noise that accompanies the workouts of a 6-foot-6, 233-pound Olympian. And exercising in the sun-soaked July heat is unbearable at best, dangerous at worst.
So, sometime around 8:30 Thursday morning, Obert will unfold his rubber yoga mat on the desert floor, in the shade beneath a Tucson overpass. He’ll connect his iPad to a Zoom call with his U.S. water polo teammates, grab the exercise bands in his backpack and virtually work out with his team. In other words, it will be like any other day during the pandemic.
“Sometimes there are pigeons when I arrive,” he said. “I haven’t seen any reptiles yet. It’s pretty wild. Definitely not normal.”
Swimmer Katie Ledecky describes how she and fellow Olympian Simone Manuel trained in a backyard pool near Stanford while everything was shut down due to the pandemic.
Nothing has been normal since March 24, when the International Olympic Committee and Tokyo Organizing Committee jointly announced the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Games. Now, instead of opening ceremonies on July 24, there is uncertainty, disconnect, confusion and the very real possibility that the Games, now scheduled to begin a year later on July 23, 2021, might never happen at all. In a survey conducted earlier this month by Japanese news agency Kyodo, just one in four Japanese citizens was in favor of hosting the Games in 2021. Thirty-six percent of respondents thought the Games should again be postponed, which International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach has said will not happen. And 33% of respondents thought the Games should be canceled outright.
The IOC has put together a task force charged with building a simplified Games for next year, with limited or perhaps no spectators, scaled-back services and multiple precautions to prevent further spread of the coronavirus. Bach told French newspaper L’Equipe it would have been easier to cancel the Games than postpone them, but “we are there to organize the Games, not to cancel them.”
And thus the new plan, as outlined in a document released by the task force, boasts the postponed Games will “be a milestone in the world’s shared journey of recovery and a light at the end of the tunnel.” It adds “the Games will be a symbol of hope, resilience and the power of humanity working together as one.”
In the four months since the postponement was announced, there is one skill athletes have learned more than any other: improvisation. Take Rio silver medalist Sandi Morris, who built a professional-grade pole vault pit in her backyard that was so impressive it hosted a USA Track & Field-sanctioned event July 16. Or American climber Brooke Raboutou, who scaled her fireplace and hung from her kitchen countertops during quarantine: here, here and here. When officials closed local pools, gold medalists Lilly King, Cody Miller and others found a place to swim in a local pond in Bloomington, Indiana. Two-time Olympic medalist April Ross set up a volleyball court in her backyard.
In Australia, slalom canoeist Jess Fox practiced in a backyard pool that was a mere two times the length of her canoe. In Italy, Brazilian pole vaulter Thiago Braz, who won gold in Rio, tied a pole between two trees to maintain his craft.
— Alex Obert (@aobert18) July 23, 2020
“The Games are going to be the ultimate test of resiliency,” Obert said. “If you can take what’s happened and use it to drive yourself, you can turn it into a positive. But you have to be resilient. You have to be able to think outside the box.”
Now comes July 24, 2020, a date to look not only at what should have been but at what still might be. It’s the second one-year countdown to the Tokyo Games, on a drastically different landscape for athletes than a year earlier, a shining example of just how far the Olympic world is from returning to normal.
In Lincoln, Nebraska, 2012 Olympic wrestling champion Jordan Burroughs will begin his day with 7:30 breakfast with his three kids. They’ll watch “Sesame Street” or “How It’s Made” before a bike ride or walk around the neighborhood. In the afternoon, Burroughs will head to a youth wrestling gym, where a friend of a friend has given him a key to the barren facility where he trains. Then there will be naps, a snack, maybe a movie, dinner, a round of kids’ baths and then bed.
“It’s special,” said Burroughs, who had never been able to spend this much time around his family. “But it’s also tough because I don’t have that purposeful pursuit from an occupational perspective. There’s no timeline. There’s no face I’m preparing for. This time of year usually everyone is excited in Lincoln. We have a big send-off party. I’m on the news. Everywhere I go it’s ‘Bring home the gold!’ Now everyone has just sort of forgotten. People are like ‘Are there even going to be an Olympics?’ It’s this weird thing.”
In California, where the U.S. women’s water polo team has begun team training in smaller groups at its private facility, captain Maggie Steffens has been bugging teammate and fellow two-time gold medalist Melissa Seidemann about how they should commemorate July 24.
“We’ll get on a Zoom call, or maybe we can take a sunset walk on the beach and get some perspective,” Seidemann said. “Just to remember the world is beautiful and this opportunity will present itself again.”
The day will bring a grueling double training session in Florida for American swimmer Caeleb Dressel, who will swim from 8 to 10 in the morning and then again from 5 to 7 that night. “Gotta love the routine,” Dressel said. His U.S. teammate Nathan Adrian has a similar day scheduled in Northern California. “If the Olympics were about to happen, I’d be as strong and in shape to perform as ever. Instead, I’m in the process of training and beating my body up day in and day out.”
And then there’s cross country mountain biker Kate Courtney, who has planned a picturesque ride in the Trinity Alps in California followed by a lake swim and a likely nap with her new puppy, Monte.
“The delay of the Olympics has been challenging and I can’t wait to stand in opening ceremonies next year, but I am also learning to appreciate the unique opportunities this time presents,” Courtney said. “Happy and motivated athletes are fast athletes.”
Outside the U.S., Ghanaian sprinter Joseph Amoah plans to don his traditional Ghanaian dress and take a photograph. “To get that Olympic feeling for 20 to 30 minutes to respect that moment and recognize that this day was supposed to be the Olympic day but we weren’t able to be there.” Murielle Ahoure, a sprinter from the Ivory Coast, plans to rewatch videos of previous Olympic Games after her training session. And Nadie Eke, a Ghanaian triple jumper, will read and paint after her daily workout. “I’m trying to build the next phase of my life. It doesn’t sound exciting, but I’m not someone who watches sports outside of competing. So if the Games aren’t on, I won’t be watching anything else.”
Swimming Australia is hosting a virtual national swim meet at three locations around the country. Athletes will compete in one of four distances in any stroke and log a time to get their competitive juices flowing.
“It’s important to be together on that day, acknowledging all the emotions surrounding it and just getting back to our community,” said Australia coach Rohan Taylor. “We want the event to be a celebration of the high-performance community — athletes, coaches and sports scientists alike.”
The IOC planned to release a video message at 8 p.m. Japanese Standard Time, the exact moment the opening ceremonies were scheduled to begin. It is expected to incorporate themes of gratitude and support for the athletes hoping to compete in 2021.
Nothing official is planned at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs, Colorado, in large part because group gatherings are discouraged. The training center opened its doors to 25 residents earlier this month.
Where the virus, and subsequently Olympic athletes, goes from here will ultimately tell the story of whether the Games will be able to take place next July. As sports gradually return around the globe, one of the biggest concerns for Olympic athletes is the lack of a level playing field when it comes to training. While professional water polo leagues have resumed in Europe, Obert said the American team has yet to train together.
Burroughs, who serves as the athlete commission chairman for United World Wrestling, said wrestlers in some countries are in full training camps with large groups of people together but wrestlers in other countries are still in lockdown, unable to leave home for anything besides food. The U.S., he confesses, is stuck somewhere in the middle.
“Americans don’t listen. We don’t like being told what to do,” Burroughs said. “And that’s why we are where we are. One of the things I think about is being on the wrong side of history. This is life-changing stuff. I’ve been blessed where I’ve never been affected by unforeseen circumstances that have changed how I live my life. Now I’m in the midst of it. That’s been the hardest part, knowing that no matter how hard you work, there are some things that are simply out of your hands.”
Bonnie Ford, Alyssa Roenigk and Ed Dove contributed to this story.
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