NEW YORK - One person who knows exactly how devastating it would be to cancel the Olympics is Nancy Hogshead-Makar. As a 17-year-old, the swimmer was training full time for the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow. The focus of every day was training. Her naps were rigorously scheduled. Her diet was meticulously thought-out. She pushed herself to her physical limits. There was no purpose other than Olympic gold.
"I think someone who says, 'Let's move it to next year,' has no idea what it takes to make an Olympic team," Hogshead-Makar said. "The goal had me by the throat. I made a promise to myself after the Olympics that I would never give myself to a goal so completely."
But in 1980, the United States wouldn't send a team to the Olympics. President Jimmy Carter boycotted the event in response to the USSR invading Afghanistan in 1979. He made the decision in March of 1980, after Hogshead-Makar and her teammates had been swimming 14 miles a day for three months to increase their lung capacity and strength.
"We were in mourning," she said.
The Olympic flame just traveled from Athens to the Matsushima base in Japan. And yet, that flame is a symbol of a tradition that cannot go forward as scheduled. We can say that knowing that those on the team are giving up something that they have pursued singularly. But a pandemic virus that is affecting some parts of the world more severely than others, where athletes from nations that have fought back the infection come into contact with those from nations where it rages and those where it hasn't yet arrived, is a problem that scales well above one beloved Olympic tradition.
The calls to cancel the Olympics are getting louder. The CEO of USA Swimming, Tim Hinchley III, knows exactly what it takes to make the team, so it is with deep seriousness that he called for a year-long postponement.
Hinchley wrote the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee, "the right and responsible thing to do is to prioritize everyone's health and safety and appropriately recognize the toll this global pandemic is taking on athletic preparations."
It's time to change the date. Norway and Brazil have already come out in favor of a delay. As painful as that would be given the time and money to prepare, it is really the only option. It's not just about the players on the field and how quickly they might transmit the virus to each other - see the NBA if there are any doubts about how that works. Theoretically with rigorous testing in place, you could quarantine each athlete and test them several times before the games.
Except that it isn't just about the athletes. Even if you closed the Olympics to spectators, there are officials and support staff, security and heads of sport that need to be at the events. There would be production crews for the international broadcast feed. There would be cafeterias and hotel rooms to be cleaned, common spaces where people would gather, restaurants and bars.
And how would athletes prepare? Those stay-at-home orders apply to them as well. As much as we watch and as famous as they become, Olympic athletes are not essential employees. They are not the doctors who will treat the sick, they are not workers who will make masks or restock grocery shelves. The most important jobs right now are not the ones in the spotlight.
The one thing that made Hogshead-Makar feel better about missing the 1980 Olympics when she was 17, was feeling that she was sacrificing something for the good of the country. An attorney who is now the CEO of Champion Women, which advocates for equity in sport, Hogshead-Makar got the Congressional Medal of Freedom that year, which bolstered that feeling of sacrifice.
Since then, she has a more nuanced understanding of the geopolitics of that decision, but at the time the sense of solidarity brought her comfort. In 1984, she went on to win three gold medals and a silver.
The coronavirus is a different kind of impediment than the one that kept US athletes home in 1980. And yet, that sense of shared sacrifice is important. We need to pull together to stop the spread of a virus with the potential to kill millions around the world. Our games, our goals, our pursuits are all being put on hold.
Even the ones that had us by the throat.
"I encourage athletes to find some meaning," Hogshead-Makar said.
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