Olympic athletes who qualified for Tokyo Games get good news

When Olympic leaders postponed the summer games this week due to the COVID-19 pandemic, pushing massive competition into next year, their decision raised great demand.

What happens to athletes who already do that qualified for Tokyo? Should they go back and compete again for their place?

The problem was solved Friday: The 33 federations that governed each sport reached an agreement with the International Olympic Committee to honor all previous qualifications when the Games finally take place.

“Definitely a big relief,” said Haley Anderson, an open water swimmer who made the US team last July.

The qualification process varies by sport and country. In some cases, athletes have to prove themselves for a trial match just before the Games. Other times, the spots are determined much earlier.

The US has not yet made choices in gymnastics and basketball, but has filled in much of the selection for sports such as open water swimming, marathon and surfing.

Fifty-seven percent of the approximately 11,000 slots available for Tokyo were filled before the corona virus outbreak stopped sporting events around the world, the IOC said.

Sebastian Coe, president of the International Job Federation, confirmed that each federation expressed support for the maintenance of existing qualifications. The decision, he said, will advance his sport.

“What is important now is that we develop a clear and fair process for the remaining athletes to qualify, as many events have been postponed,” Coe wrote in an open letter.

The matter was of particular concern to Phil Andrews, general manager of Weightlifting in the US, who noted that some of his athletes feared “that they might have to fight again for what they’ve already earned.”

“The IOC has definitely made the right decision about this,” he said. “You must protect those who are told they are going to the Olympics.”

Andrews and others see questions that still need to be answered.

Some federations have shortened their qualification process and canceled the last one or two matches at the start of the pandemic. Should they stick with these truncated results or go back and finish later?

In other sports, each nation earns its number of slots based on how athletes perform in competition. Will the athletes responsible for securing that quota go to Tokyo, or will the nation wait until next year to pick the top performers at that point?

“You have these gray areas,” said Andrews. “There are still some details that need to be ironed out.”

Timing is another potential dilemma.

Some national teams have already announced their selection in the summer of 2019, which means that two years may pass before they participate in the Games. As one athlete mused, “A lot can change in two years.”

What happens if there is someone whose performance declines poorly next year? Or an athlete who suffers a serious injury and cannot train much before appearing in Tokyo?

“That’s a very interesting question to ask,” said Andrews. “What is the fairest thing to do?”

Marathon runner Jake Riley, who earned his place on the US team last month, raised another potential problem, saying that without the IOC’s decision, “there could be some legal challenges from some of the qualifying matches.”

For the time being, Olympic leaders and organizers of Tokyo are focused on setting a new date for the Games. They need to find a compromise that works for a long list of stakeholders and fits into a calendar full of 2021 sporting events.

While IOC President Thomas Bach suggested next year’s fall might work, one of his top employees pointed to the end of July to early August.

The track federation hopes to save part of the 2020 season and have one-day encounters late in the year so that, as Coe said, “our athletes can compete again as soon as it is safe to do so.”

Riley tries to remain flexible with his preparation. In an already stressful time, he is happy that his trip to Tokyo – whenever that may be – is safe.

“From everything I had heard, I was confident this would be the case, but it is nice to have it confirmed,” he said. “That would be something to worry about.”

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