Britain’s leading athletes have endorsed the decision to postpone the Tokyo Olympics until 2021, with the triathlete Alistair Brownlee, the swimmer Adam Peaty and the heptathlete Katarina Johnson-Thompson among those to say that sport should take a back seat in the midst of the global pandemic.

Brownlee, who was hoping to win his third successive gold medal this summer, told the Guardian that while the International Olympic Committee had taken too long to make a decision he was pleased it had done the right thing. “It is one of the oldest adages around that athletes have to be super cut-throat and very selfish, and that is true,” he said. “But right now all the resources that can possibly fight this virus must be used for that and not on a sporting event.”

Brownlee, who said that training had been going better than for years in the buildup to Tokyo, added: “From an athlete perspective, it was really important it was done now and not in another month’s time. To go so hard in preparing for the Olympic Games only to be told weeks out that it would be postponed would be so much worse.

“And whereas at the start of the month a six-week suspension in sporting events seemed a long time, now it is completely foreseeable for us to think that nothing will be on for the rest of the year. So my approach will be about a change of focus – about staying healthy, and making the right decisions to keep the people around me healthy.”

Peaty, who was expected to win 100m breaststroke gold again in Tokyo, said the IOC had made the only decision it could. “As an athlete, I am obviously extremely disappointed but this is more important and bigger than me or any of the athletes that would have been taking part,” he added. “This is a matter of life or death and we all need to do the right thing.”

Johnson-Thompson, the heptathlon world champion, concurred, writing: “Waited eight years for this, what’s another one in the grand scheme of things? As an athlete, it’s heartbreaking news about the Olympics being postponed until 2021, but it’s for all the right reasons and the safety of everyone! Stay indoors!”

It is understood the British Olympic Association was intending to publicly back a delay to the Games until 2021 before the postponement was announced because few athletes have been able to train with gyms and facilities shut down. Insiders also felt that there was no way it could pull Team GB doctors away amidst a national crisis – especially when its chief medical officer, Niall Elliot, was on the front line in Scotland. Its resolve was further strengthened by a private opinion poll of more than 1,000 people in the UK, which found that only 5% of Britons wanted the Games to start as scheduled on 24 July.

Responding to the news, the BOA’s chief executive, Andy Anson, said: “It is with profound sadness that we accept the postponement, but in all consciousness it is the only decision we can support, in light of the devastating impact Covid-19 is having on our nation, our communities and our families.”

Meanwhile UK Sport insisted that it would discuss ways to support Olympic and Paralympic athletes following the delay. “Given the unprecedented global challenge we face, today’s news means that athletes, their coaches and support staff can now fully focus on what really matters at this terribly difficult time, keeping themselves and their families safe,” its chief executive, Sally Munday, added.

Sebastian Coe, the president of World Athletics, said his organisation would be willing to move its world championships, scheduled for Oregon in August 2021, to make way for the Olympics next year. “The decision the IOC has taken is absolutely the right one,” he added. “You can’t have athletes locked in their houses, not able to train or use public facilities, then clearly the integrity of the competition was going to disappear.”

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