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U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee Leadership Stresses Health, Safety As No. 1 Priority

By Karen Price | March 20, 2020, 1:08 p.m. (ET)


Amidst the global uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus outbreak, United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee leadership made one thing very clear on Friday.

“As Americans, our number one priority right now needs to be health and safety and the containment of this virus. Period. Full stop,” said Sarah Hirshland, CEO of the USOPC.

On a call with reporters, Hirshland and USOPC Board Chair Susanne Lyons emphasized that the health and well-being of not only the athletes but also the communities in which they live and the public at large are priority number one.

“First and foremost, we are clearly encouraging athletes to put their safety and the safety of the people in their community first and to follow the guidance of local health officials above and beyond everything else,” Hirshland said. “It’s critical for us to play our role in society and do everything we can to prevent the continued spread of this virus and to keep ourselves safe.”

With the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 set to begin in late July, one of the great difficulties for athletes right now, not only in the U.S. but globally, is finding opportunities to train amidst the government mandated closures of gyms and other training facilities and social distancing mandates. While officials are encouraging athletes to continue to do what they can to prepare themselves for competition, they stressed that doing so should in no way compromise their safety of the safety of others.

Although the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Training Centers in Lake Placid, New York, and Colorado Springs, Colorado, are closed, resident athletes are still allowed to live on campus and meals are being provided via takeout to ensure they stay well-fed and healthy. A number of athletes have opted to return home during this time as they are unable to train, Hirshland said.

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The USOPC is also ramping up efforts to provide mental health support to athletes and encouraged those who are struggling to seek help.

“In this time of extreme anxiety many of us and certainly athletes are incredibly confused and facing an enormous amount of ambiguity as to what may come this summer,” Hirshland said. “We’re doubling down on our mental health resources and expanding access to those resources to a broader group of athletes and working to community with them to de-stigmatize any concerns they have about reaching out for mental health support.”

The USOPC has been and will continue to be in contact with National Governing Bodies and international federations, going over scenarios for qualification processes in order to ensure that athletes will still have a fair chance to compete for inclusion on the Olympic and Paralympic teams.

With regards to the status of the Olympics and Paralympic Games themselves, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach has said the IOC is considering alternatives but that it’s premature to identify a contingency plan at this point. 

“We’re doing an enormous amount of scenario planning trying to be as prepared as we can for every potential outcome,” Hirshland said. “It is our hope that our athletes will have the ability to achieve their dreams in some capacity and certainly the focus is on Tokyo 2020 and will continue to be, and we will do everything we can not to give up on our athletes and do everything we can to support them and their preparation for the opportunity to compete at the Olympics.”

More updates from the USOPC regarding COVID-19 can be found at TeamUSA.org/coronavirus.

Karen Price is a reporter from Pittsburgh who has covered Olympic and Paralympic sports for various publications. She is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.