The decision to move the Olympics and Paralympics to 2021 raises a bumper crop of thorny questions, none of which can be answered at the moment.
“Postponement was the…inevitable choice at this stage,” said Will Connell, the U.S. Equestrian Federation’s director of sport, about today’s action by the International Olympic Committee. “It was the only decision that could have been made and perhaps should have been made a little sooner.”
Although the IOC insisted just yesterday it would take four weeks to come up with a scenario about how to handle postponing or running the Games in the face of a worldwide pandemic, pressure from athletes and national Olympic committees meant immediate action was necessary. Last night, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee added its voice to those who saw postponement as the way forward, and the IOC bowed.
With that step taken, however, “We are in completely uncharted territory. We’ve never seen the Olympic and Paralympic Games postponed for a year,” said Will, who is at the wheel as the USEF tries to navigate the stormy seas of uncertainty.
Although he and the team have been working for 10 days on all the “what-ifs,” more information—such as the dates of the rescheduled Games—is required before new efforts can even have a foundation on which to build.
“We took the decision we were going to identify every area we needed to address, then we needed to prioritize and then we were going to address them. We did that and listed 250 different things.”
He pointed out, “There are a lot of things we can simply put on hold in terms of the preparation and planning,” he observed, “but there are many things we will need more detail on before we can work with athletes, organizers, coaches, logistics firms; how or if we can roll the contracts over to 2021. It’s all going to take a number of weeks, if not months, to get done.”
Meanwhile, it’s a relief for athletes who won’t have to keep pushing toward what became an increasingly unlikely goal as they tried to stay clear of the coronavirus.
“Everybody needs to stay home and stay safe at the moment,” advised Will. “We all feel for any athlete who has a horse that was focused in on this year and might not be as ideal for next year. That’s obviously terrible.”
At the same time, “There will be other athletes who will be looking at their horses going, `Yeah, another year; he could be a contender for the Olympics or Paralympics.’
“We’ll redo the selection procedures when we know the dates and timelines, and then we’ll go again. A lot of it can be transferred over. We need to wind back to where we were in December/January in terms of our preparations. We need to roll our mindset forward 12 months.”
One of the big unknowns is when equestrian competition can resume, at all levels.
As Will pointed out, while the headlines are about Tokyo, “there are many, many people out there in the equestrian industry who were aiming for this event or that championship who also had their plans blown out of the water.
It’s not just the Olympic and Paralympic athletes.
Everyone has had their year impacted. We have to remember that when we’re discussing the way forward. The Olympic Games is the biggest sporting event on the planet, but it’s not the only sporting event. We have to feel for and support everyone who’s out there who had their training plans and enjoyment impacted.”
He added, “There will be a huge financial impact for everyone: The federations, the riders, organizers, trainers. The underlying message is we don’t know when this virus is going to pass and we don’t know when competition is starting up again. We have to stay calm and take everything in a logical sequence.”
It affects everything, including events that wouldn’t first come to mind, including the North American Youth Championships and the vaulting world championships.
“That spreadsheet now has to be completely rewritten. That is what we will do first. There’s key information needed before we write our plans, and that information is out of our hands.”
It feels as if we’re living in a different place than where we were a month ago.
“Everyone says the world is never going to be quite the same. That’s a very dramatic statement, but I suspect there’s an amount of truth to that,” Will mused.
“We’ve got to start looking at what is life after Covid-19? What can we do to get equestrian sport at all levels back on its feet, support those who have been impacted; financially, emotionally, whatever. Will the same amount of money be available to support sport? I don’t know. We won’t get those decisions today. We’re still in the throes of cancelling events, never mind putting on new events. The international sporting calendar is a complex jigsaw. Trying to rearrange that…is not going to happen overnight.”
For equestrian sport, a question is what happens to the European Championships if they’re in the same year as the Olympics, instead of in the off-years of the Olympics and world championships.
He feels lucky because there are so many experienced high performance staff and athletes available to help with U.S. efforts.
“If we pull together all that experience and the (input from) USOPC, then we have a pool of knowledge that cannot be bettered by any other nation. We need to exchange ideas, see cross-sport discussions.”
For the moment, though, the former performance director for the British Equestrian Federation has some advice on how to weather these troubled times.
“The best thing is to take a little bit from the British attitude of `brew up a cup of tea and have a long think about what we need to do.’”
At the same time, he has no question about priorities.
“Let’s get this damn thing beaten. Then we can come out with guns blazing and get sport on its feet again at all levels.”