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Former Track And Field Athletes Use Simulation Of The Tokyo Olympics For Fundraising

STACEY VANEK SMITH, HOST:

Some sports are doing better than others during the pandemic. However, fans will have to wait an entire year for the postponed Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo - or maybe not. NPR's Tom Goldman has the story about one former track and field athlete using simulations to bring the games to the fans this year, and at the same time, helping out cash-strapped athletes.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Track and field events were supposed to happen this week at the Tokyo Games. Imagine for a moment that they did. It's the finals of the women's 100-meter hurdles. The U.S. is coming off a historic sweep of the medals in this event in 2016. They're in the starting blocks at Japan National Stadium.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Set.

(SOUNDBITE OF STARTING PISTOL)

GOLDMAN: OK. That really didn't happen, but a computer simulation did.

CHRIS WILLIAMS: Hey. Let's go to the finals. Let's see the results.

GOLDMAN: Chris Williams used to be a top track and field athlete in college. He's the founder of ZELOS. It's a platform for comprehensive track and field data. And through the end of this week, it's simulating the Tokyo events that would have been.

WILLIAMS: And we have Kendra Harrison takes the gold with 12.36. Silver is Danielle Williams from Jamaica. Oh, in an upset for bronze, Tobi Amusan from Nigeria by a hundredth of a second sneaks onto the podium.

GOLDMAN: Williams is one of three people working on simulating more than 200 results. They mash up analytics on all the athletes and add a bit of randomness that creates exciting upsets. Williams hopes the ZELOS Games are a way for fans to engage and donate.

ZELOS is also is working with USA Track & Field to get corporate sponsorships for the athletes whose competitions he's simulating and who now face another year of training for the postponed games - for most, another tough financial year. He says Olympic athletes on average make $20,000 annually. It's often patched together with prize money, appearance fees and sponsorships, all affected by events shut down during the pandemic.

WILLIAMS: With the impact that COVID has had, without meets, it can potentially be a death blow to athletes who have risked a lot financially and physically to keep competing in the sport that they love.

GOLDMAN: Athletes like Olivia Gruver.

OLIVIA GRUVER: I'm a pole vaulter.

GOLDMAN: And a very good one in college.

GRUVER: I won my first national championship at Kentucky. And then - wait. I - sorry. I won two national championships at Kentucky.

GOLDMAN: After those two, the forgetful champion transferred to the University of Washington, where she set a new collegiate record. She graduated in June but hasn't been able to get any sponsorship deals. A one-time stipend from USA Track & Field of over a thousand dollars helps. But Gruver doesn't have a steady flow of money coming in.

GRUVER: My major was early childhood and family studies, so I'm kind of looking into nanny jobs or things like that.

GOLDMAN: Many aspiring U.S. Olympians will scrap for cash where they can. A U.S. Olympic COVID assistance fund will provide money. Chris Williams says he'd be excited if 10 athletes get some sort of sponsorship through the ZELOS games. The rest, at least, can glimpse how they would have done and still might do at the Tokyo Summer Olympics.

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