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Sonia O’Sullivan: Coronavirus has cast cloud of uncertainty over Olympics

Too soon to tell if Tokyo will go ahead, but athletes are now in an impossible situation

I know from my own experience that every Olympic year can be strange and unpredictable at the best of times. We’re now fast discovering what an Olympic year is like at the worst of times.

I woke up on Tuesday to read the New York Half-Marathon was the latest sporting event to be cancelled. It was all set for this Sunday – 25,000 runners entered for a run across Manhattan and Brooklyn, who are now being told to stay at home. But will they?

I was due to go to the World Half-Marathon in Gdynia, Poland at the end of March as part of the Australian coaching team. The event has been postponed, and still I find myself wondering might I travel anyway? It looks like a nice city to visit.

The World Indoor Athletics Championships were meant to be happening in Nanjing in China this weekend, and they were one of the first sporting events to be postponed because of coronavirus. A line in the sand was drawn, and everyone moved on. Many of the spring marathons have also been postponed, only for now the likes of London and Boston are still set for next month.


In the meantime the Tokyo Olympics are looming out there in the big cloud of uncertainty. It might soon be time to draw a line in the sand on that one too, rather than this drip-feed of information. But this is unprecedented, and any decision to either cancel or postpone needs to be considered very carefully. It's still too soon to tell.

Whether you are a weekend warrior or an Olympic athlete, the goal posts haven't just been moved, some of them have been taken away

If the Olympics is the most important sporting event in the world, then it's right that other events should step back to help the containment of the disease. Only where does that leave athletes like Irish marathon runners Aoife Cooke and Sean Tobin, still chasing a qualifying time? Plus many others, across not just the track and field spectrum but all other Olympic sport. It's nearly an impossible situation to be in.

It’s hard to believe athletes are not losing sleep over this. I know I woke up at 4am this morning trying to work out if I’d washed my hands before bed. It’s unquestionably a serious situation – but it’s also about finding some balance between the extreme measures that are being taken and each individual taking responsibility.

Everything and everyone is being affected in some way, and everything has changed across the world, but still it feels like there is no precedence to follow – a bit like making up the rules as we go along.

It’s easy to highlight the cancelled or postponed sporting fixtures as these are events that many people look forward to watching or taking part in. Whether you are a weekend warrior or an Olympic athlete, the goal posts haven’t just been moved, some of them have been taken away.

We often use athletes’ stories and achievements as an analogy for life’s challenges. It’s a fun way to break things down and be inspired to make things happen, to change perspective. Most athletes will continue to train as normal, because what else can you do? The rest of us can’t abandon all health and fitness either and simply put life on hold. There has to be a way to see beyond the short term and be optimistic about what lies ahead.

Each day the different events are cancelled, we see more people self-quarantined and the level of normality changing all the time. But to remain focused everyone needs to operate on a need-to-know basis, otherwise it gets confusing with so many conflicting messages.

Throughout my time in Australia I have seen droughts and water-shortages, bush fires and hail storms. We learned quickly how to adapt with simple changes, like turning the tap off when brushing our teeth. Now worldwide we are learning to wash our hands with plenty of soap throughout the day, thoroughly for 20 seconds at a time. If you watch the clock that's a long time and you realise how incorrectly you've been doing it all along.

Sport and exercise is the best medicine for all physical and mental health. To be outdoors is invigorating, so for this to be taken away will pose a problem for sporting communities who are used to signing up for events and preparing to meet these challenges. Another challenge we now face is to walk into a room and pull back from all intimate greetings. Even just keeping your distance from people creates a tension, an awkward pause in the flow of normality.

I don't believe postponement is an option, not when there are so many intricate details across all sports and events

If an event is cancelled there is no reason that you can’t go and create your own unofficial, informal gathering. Or using the many different apps that record daily exercise we could compare our solo efforts instead. It’s not the same but it is something. I can’t imagine a day when I can’t go outside for fresh air.

There will be many missed sporting opportunities this year, not just for athletes chasing qualifying times and places for Tokyo. As it stands the Olympics remain on track, and Japan is doing all it can to contain a safe environment for athletes, spectators, volunteers and sponsors. With so much to consider and work to do, its hard to predict what will be decided come July if the current trend continues.

Some athletes could unfairly miss out, unable to fulfil their qualifications, so more time may be needed. But in practical terms, everything can’t take place in October. So I don’t believe postponement is an option, not when there are so many intricate details across all sports and events.

We all need to know how to protect ourselves and still continue to live. This is not just about sport, not just about the Olympics, but about life and realising that when something is taken away you are reminded of the value it once held.

We will work out how to navigate the unknown. In time it will feel like nothing has changed – we will all continue as normal and slot back into our busy lives, only maybe appreciating things that little bit more when they were nearly all taken away. The Olympics included.