Friday, April 03, 2020

No Holds Barred: Rob Koehler on Athletes' Key Role in Forcing the IOC to Postpone the Olympics Amidst the Coronavirus Pandemic 

On this edition of No Holds Barred, host Eddie Goldman once again spoke with Rob Koehler, director general of Global Athlete.

We spoke with him by phone Thursday.

For weeks the International Olympic Committee and its president, Thomas Bach, insisted that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics would go on as scheduled starting in July, and even after the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a pandemic on March 11. That only changed on March 24, when the IOC and the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee did an abrupt about-face and announced that the Olympics would be postponed. Later on March 30, they announced that the new dates would be July 23 to August 8, 2021, for the Olympics and August 24 to September 5, 2021, for the Paralympics. But these changes were only made after many athletes and sports organizations were vociferously protesting, demanding a postponement, and saying they would not participate on the originally planned dates to protect their health.

"The International Olympic Committee and Thomas Bach, I think, really didn't manage this in a way that had the athletes' rights respected in the manner that they should have been," said Rob Koehler.

A pandemic was declared, Olympic qualifying events were being cancelled, many professional sports organizations postponed or cancelled events, training facilities and gyms were being closed, borders were being closed, people were self-isolating, positive tests and deaths from the coronavirus were mounting, and some countries instituted lockdowns. But the IOC was "telling athletes to continue to train, continue to go forward with their preparations for the Olympic Games, which for us and the athlete groups we spoke to was an out-of-touch message" that ignored the "number one thing," public health, he said.

"We rallied the troops. We worked with different sports, athletics, the different countries to look at the message we wanted to send to the International Olympic Committee. And we called very openly and very vocally for the IOC to make an announcement that they're postponing the Games. They owed the duty of care to athletes. They were acting very irresponsibly. And I think the athletes' voice, the way they spoke up, forced the IOC to make a decision that they should have made a week before, and that was to postpone the Games," he said.

"We understand it's a very difficult situation, there's a lot of moving parts, it's not an easy decision, but all athletes needed to hear was, 'it's being postponed and we'll figure things out and we'll let you know once we figure things out.'

"And the athletes forced that card on them, and I was proud of every athlete that stood up."

We also discussed how many athletes competing in professional leagues have representation while many Olympic athletes do not; various models for independent athletes' associations; the need to support athletes' mental health with the postponement of the Olympics; how it is not yet known if athletes will be able to train in time to prepare for an Olympics starting in July 2021; the fiasco of the IOC-run Olympic boxing qualifier in London which was only cancelled midway after it had started and saw several boxers and coaches test positive for coronavirus afterwards; alternatives to the Olympic movement; and much, much more.

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