Veteran International Olympic Committee member Dick Pound told USA TODAY Sports Monday that he understands why the Canadian Olympic Committee CEO said he is “worried” about the Beijing Winter Olympics going ahead next month as planned in the midst of the explosion of the omicron COVID-19 variant around the world.
“If I were in his shoes, that’s what I would be saying,” said Pound, at 79 the longest-serving IOC member. “If you’re the CEO of a national Olympic committee, you have to have the public demeanor of not being blind to the possibility that the whole thing could blow up.
“There is no indication that’s going to happen,” Pound added, “but there is nothing in living memory that we’ve ever experienced of this nature. It certainly is going around the world, and more people are traveling so more people are in a position to catch or spread the virus, so yes, of course you have to say ‘we are concerned with the health and safety of our team.’ “
Pound is the first member of the IOC to publicly open the door to canceling the Beijing Games. His comments came after David Shoemaker, the Canadian Olympic Committee CEO, told the CBC on Friday, “We’re worried. We’re confident that these Games can still be scheduled safely. But we’re taking it day-by-day and wake up every morning to make sure that is how we still feel about it.”
Pound, a Canadian who has been one of the most influential members of the IOC for decades, said Shoemaker “is worried more about the time period before the Games than during the Games themselves.”
It’s a concern that is not unfounded. U.S. Olympic skiing gold medalist Mikaela Shiffrin, who is expected to be one of the stars of the Games, announced she tested positive for COVID last week. She said she expects to be back competing soon. The Canadian bobsled federation placed 10 of its athletes and three staff members in COVID protocols last week. The National Hockey League announced last month it would not send players to the men’s Olympic hockey tournament, while protocols have been strengthened at some Olympic trials in the United States and Canada, including not allowing spectators.
“The concern is about all the people who are not yet in China, if, one by one, they get picked off and you lose a bobsledder here, a skater there,” Pound said. “If you got to the point where there were only Chinese athletes, then no, these aren’t the Olympic Games and they wouldn’t be recognized as such.”
Asked to put a percentage on the chance of postponing or canceling the Games, Pound said the chances were “very slim.
“You’re nuts to try to put a number to it. It’s a possibility that can’t be wholly discounted but it’s not at the level of whole countries saying we should not be going there at all. It’s a shame if Athlete X is out of contention but you’ve still got a couple of hundred athletes who aren’t. You don’t cancel it even if it happens to be one of your stars.”
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Asked about the possibility of postponing the Beijing Games, as the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics were, rather than canceling them, Pound said, “I don’t think these things are postponable. In almost every respect the arrow has left the bow. They’re going to start Feb. 4 and it would take a real upset of some sort to change that.
“I think there will be uncertainty surrounding the Games in the public, as far as the ship sailing, but right now, the lines are cast off and the boat is leaving the dock, unless Armageddon happens and public health authorities say we lock down every country. At that point, it changes the entire paradigm.”
Pound said that even though the IOC says all systems are go for Beijing, it’s right for national Olympic leaders in countries around the world to acknowledge the severity of the situation.
“Anybody over room temperature has a concern and is alive to the possibility that (cancellation) could happen, although we don’t think it’s going to happen,” he said. “It’s a cloud out there and you have to be alert to that possibility with a variant that is so easily transmissible.
“There certainly are going to be athletes out there competing and cases will crop up. The question is, how many will it be, and does it amount to a tsunami that says it is no longer feasible to hold these Olympic Games?”