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Olympics Officials Insist Tokyo Games Are Still On. Not All Are So Sure

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

As sports events continue to shut down because of the coronavirus, one global event - the biggest one of all - continues to stand firm. Olympic organizers insist the Tokyo Summer Games are on and will start in late July, which to some is a beacon of hope. But as NPR's Tom Goldman reports, a growing number of Olympics athletes and officials think full steam ahead is the wrong message to send.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: The Olympic flame landed in Japan today.

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Japanese).

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UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Speaking Japanese).

GOLDMAN: Amid the smiles and pomp, there was not a hint of the growing concerns that the Tokyo Games might not be practical in the face of a spreading virus. There was plenty of that concern on a two-hour conference call this week that included International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach and more than 200 athletes and athlete representatives, like Han Xiao. He heads the Athletes' Advisory Council on the USOPC, the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee.

HAN XIAO: Even before I hung up the phone, I was pretty unhappy. I was mad. I was distraught.

GOLDMAN: Han heard more of what we've been hearing for weeks from IOC officials - that the games will go on. Recently, almost proudly, IOC President Bach said officials weren't even using the words postponement or cancellation. Han says this is increasingly confusing and alarming to athletes who want to train but also hear that may not be safe.

XIAO: So the emphasis was not on public health or making sure that we were being good members of the global community. It was very much on, let's make sure that everybody can continue with their training - we're going to have the games. That was obviously the No. 1 priority.

GOLDMAN: Han says at one point during the call, an IOC official, emphasizing the need to keep training, noted Chinese athletes at the height of the outbreak in their country still found a way. It's getting more challenging to train. Gyms are closing. Even the USOPC's main training center in Colorado shut down this week. USOPC officials say they understand the frustration of some athletes about the IOC's unwillingness to speculate about postponement or cancellation or even simply lay out a timetable for making one of those event-changing decisions.

Sarah Hirshland is the USOPC CEO. She spoke to reporters today.

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SARAH HIRSHLAND: We absolutely hope that we can have clarity as soon as that's practical. At the same time, I don't know that there is an answer in this that will provide ease to everyone.

GOLDMAN: Hirshland says her organization has doubled down on mental health resources for athletes. Meanwhile, calls continue for dramatic action. Today, USA Swimming, one of the most prominent national governing bodies, sent a letter to the USOPC asking the committee to advocate for a yearlong postponement of the Summer Games. Olympics expert Jules Boykoff thinks the Tokyo Games should be canceled. After all, he says, the IOC always likes to say the Olympics are bigger than sports.

JULES BOYKOFF: Actually, I think it would be a remarkable act of global solidarity. To confront the coronavirus, we're going to have to come together and think in the big picture collectively. And so the International Olympic Committee could actually take the lead.

GOLDMAN: Boykoff says the IOC has a history of pressing through catastrophe with the mantra, the games must go on. The question is, is that wise or even safe in the face of a pandemic?

Tom Goldman, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.