LONDON/NEW YORK • Tweeting from her Toronto couch two weeks ago, six-time Olympian Hayley Wickenheiser had two words for the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which had yet to postpone the Tokyo Games amid the coronavirus pandemic: “Insensitive and irresponsible.”
Days later, the IOC acquiesced, delaying the Olympics until July next year and sparking what some say could be a permanent shift in power away from the hierarchical governing body to athletes.
As the coronavirus pandemic swept the globe, sponsors and broadcasters with millions of dollars on the line stayed mostly silent about the timing of the Olympics, which had been scheduled to open in July. Sports federations simply said they would take their lead from the IOC. The vast majority of nations bided their time.
For an exasperated Wickenheiser, 41, something had to give.
“I think the IOC insisting this will move ahead, with such conviction, is insensitive and irresponsible given the state of humanity,” she tweeted.
The Canadian ice hockey gold medallist and doctor-in-training, who also competed in softball at the 2000 Sydney Games, told Reuters that she could not stay silent.
“(Athletes) were the first voices to really alert the world to how tone deaf the IOC was being,” she said.
As a result, the IOC narrative was “turned on its head”, said Johannes Herber, chief executive officer at Athleten Deutschland, a group representing German athletes.
“The fact that the IOC and Japan decided to postpone has a lot to do with the fact that athletes spoke out and clearly told their stories. It somehow made it real,” he said.
“Formally, nothing has changed and athletes have formally no more power than before. But the power they have through social media to form public opinion was clearly demonstrated.”
Some in the IOC acknowledge athlete power was key in this unprecedented postponement, signalling a challenge to the body’s supremacy.
POWER OF SOCIAL MEDIA
Formally, nothing has changed and athletes have formally no more power than before. But the power they have through social media to form public opinion was clearly demonstrated.
JOHANNES HERBER, CEO at Athleten Deutschland, a group representing German athletes.
POWER OF SPEAKING UP
We’re just now really realising the power that our voice has, that what we say matters more than we think.
MICHELLE CARTER, US Olympic shot put gold medallist.
“I know for a fact that some colleagues messaged the president (Thomas Bach) urging him to postpone because they were under a lot of pressure back home both from the athletes, and in some cases governments,” one IOC member, speaking on condition of anonymity, said.
Wickenheiser, an IOC Athletes Commission member, was not the only dissenting voice.
“Our athletes played a critical role in our decision to request the postponement of the 2020 Games,” said Isabelle McLemore, a spokesman for USA Swimming, which was among the early groups to call for a delay.
Erik Kynard, a high jumper who won a silver in London 2012, had called for the postponement in media interviews and in his comments to the USA Track and Field board, of which he is a member.
“The voices of the athletes were always there. It’s just that when you’re up on a pedestal, it’s difficult to hear,” said Kynard, whose grandfather has caught the virus.
Michelle Carter, 2016 Olympic shot put gold medallist and member of the USA Track and Field board, said she was concerned about the health and safety of the officials – many of whom are aged over 70 – as well as their family members and fans.
“We’re just now really realising the power that our voice has, that what we say matters more than we think,” she added.
American Emma Coburn, who took bronze in the 3,000m steeplechase at Rio 2016, said that while there was no “war” with the IOC, the incident showed athletes’ ability “to speak up and say what they wanted”.
“In my mind, it wasn’t athletes versus IOC; it wasn’t pitted like that. It was, ‘As athletes, this is how we feel, we’re communicating it to you and we feel like it’s your job to not only listen to what we want but to what is the safest choice’,” she said.
Rob Koehler, head of the Global Athlete movement which aims to empower athletes, told Reuters the IOC should brace itself for more pressure, and a new order of things.
“In general, athletes are realising that they have the power, or can have the power,” he said. “The athletes used to be told, ‘That’s your sandbox, you go and play in it, we’ll look after the governance of sport’.
“There have been some significant moments over the last four years which have led to athletes being frustrated and realise their voices aren’t being listened to.”
For Wickenheiser, there is no turning back: “Athletes in the world need to continue to use their platforms to create change and realise the power they have.”