For athletes, Olympic delay brings relief but new challenges

DÜSSELDORF, Germany (AP) — It’s time for Olympic athletes to stand down, relax those diet rules and dial down the training.

The 2020 Tokyo Games won’t be opening in July as scheduled because of the coronavirus pandemic, Olympic officials announced Tuesday, putting everyone and everything on hold for possibly another 16 months.

“No box of Wheaties for me today,” American hurdler Lolo Jones wrote on Twitter alongside a video of her pouring a huge bag of candy into her tiny-by-comparison breakfast bowl.

The 37-year-old Jones hasn’t competed at the Summer Olympics since 2012, and not at the Winter Games as a bobsledder since 2014. But she’ll have to keep working hard for another year if she wants to make the team for the games in 2021.

Other athletes face delaying their retirement.

“I don’t want to believe it,” Italian swimmer Federica Pellegrini, who was heading for her fifth and likely final Olympics, said in a video posted on Instagram. “It seems like a joke, it seems like destiny, coincidence, but the fact remains that I can’t stop swimming.

“We’ll prepare for it as best as we can. Now it’s just about reprogramming everything, as we would have done this year. And let’s hope that my body can hold on for another year,” said Pellegrini, who lives in one of the hardest hit regions of northern Italy in terms of number of virus cases.

Instead of athletes around the world being 122 days from the opening ceremony, they’re now more than 400.

Five-time Olympic swimming champion Katie Ledecky, who was likely to be one of the stars of the Tokyo Games, said the delay meant people could focus on the virus outbreak.

“As we stand together to meet today’s challenges, we can dream about a wonderful Olympics in a beautiful country,” the American wrote on Twitter. “Now is the time to support all those working to heal the sick and keep us all healthy.”

The Olympic postponement takes the pressure off athletes who need high-intensity training at a time when many facilities are closed because of the pandemic. Athletes’ representatives had warned that even the remote prospect of a 2020 Olympics encouraged athletes to ignore public health recommendations and hit the gym.

“For us as athletes the uncertainty is finally over,” German triathlete Lena Meissner said. “In the last few weeks normal training was simply impossible and it was a very stressful situation. Now we can finally concentrate on getting through this crisis and doing justice to our social responsibility.”

Other athletes have financial concerns. Tokyo marks the return of baseball to the Olympic program for the first time since 2008, and Jeremy Wolf was set to play outfield for Israel.

A former minor leaguer with the New York Mets, the Jewish-American player retired after the 2017 season but got back in game shape for the Olympic cycle. The 26-year-old Wolf said he will seek a non-baseball job this summer and has no idea if he will have a chance to play in 2021.

“It changes a lot of things for a lot of guys,” Wolf said in a text message to The Associated Press. “Who can still play, who can afford it (cause we’re not being paid), who will still be in game shape. A year-and-a-half is an eternity in baseball time.”

Only 57% of qualifying places for the Olympics had been decided before the pandemic started affecting sporting events around the world, and the governing body for each sport faces a choice: Do they reopen qualifying for only the remaining places, or put them all up for grabs once again?

USA Weightlifting called for the IOC to guarantee spots for qualified athletes.

“For our ranked athletes, this is the single biggest stressor — the fear they may have to fight again for what they have already earned,” CEO Phil Andrews said.

In the meantime, athletes will be carrying on with creative workouts at home, using whatever is available.

For U.S. water polo attacker Kaleigh Gilchrist, that means fitness programs sent remotely by her team’s strength and conditioning coach, and swimming in the bay near her house in Southern California.

“It’s tough to see a lot of that hard work go,” Gilchrist told the AP. “It’s been stressful, but with the postponement I hope we can all take a big sigh of relief and focus on staying healthy and then getting after it once the team gets back together.”

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