IOC’s Dick Pound says Covid-19 is a real concern for Beijing 2022 but only a ‘slim chance’ Winter Games will be cancelled or postponed
- Pound is the first high-profile member of the IOC to publicly talk about the coronavirus threat to the Winter Olympics, though he is confident the Games will go ahead
- Canadian Olympic Committee CEO David Shoemaker said he was “worried” about the Winter Olympics taking place because of the global surge in Omicron cases
Veteran International Olympic Committee member Dick Pound has come out as the first high-profile IOC member to openly discuss the coronavirus threat to the Winter Games, but remains confident the Games will go ahead as planned.
The IOC member told USA Today Sports that while there was no immediate conversation around postponing the Beijing Olympics, he said there was “nothing in living memory” that compared to Covid-19 and the highly contagious Omicron variant now spreading around the globe.
His comments came after David Shoemaker, the Canadian Olympic Committee CEO, said last week that he was “worried” about the Beijing Winter Olympics going ahead in the midst of an explosion of the Omicron variant.
“We’re confident that these Games can still be scheduled safely,” Shoemaker said. But we’re taking it day by day and wake up every morning to make sure that is how we still feel about it.”
Pound, a Canadian who has been one of the most influential members of the IOC for decades, said Shoemaker “is worried more about the time period before the Games than during the Games themselves”.
“If I were in his shoes, that’s what I would be saying,” Pound said. “If you’re the CEO of a national Olympic committee, you have to have the public demeanour of not being blind to the possibility that the whole thing could blow up.”
It is a concern that is not unfounded. US Olympic skiing gold medallist Mikaela Shiffrin, who is expected to be one of the stars of the Games, announced she tested positive for Covid-19 last week.
She said she expects to be back competing soon. The Canadian bobsled federation placed 10 of its athletes and three staff members in Covid-19 protocols last week. The National Hockey League announced last month it would not send players to the men’s Olympic hockey tournament, while protocols have been strengthened at some Olympic trials in the United States and Canada, including not allowing spectators.
“The concern is about all the people who are not yet in China, if, one by one, they get picked off and you lose a bobsledder here, a skater there,” Pound said. “If you got to the point where there were only Chinese athletes, then no, these aren’t the Olympic Games and they wouldn’t be recognised as such.”
Asked to put a percentage on the chance of postponing or cancelling the Games, Pound said the chances were “very slim”.
“You’re nuts to try to put a number to it. It’s a possibility that can’t be wholly discounted but it’s not at the level of whole countries saying we should not be going there at all. It’s a shame if Athlete X is out of contention but you’ve still got a couple of hundred athletes who aren’t. You don’t cancel it even if it happens to be one of your stars.”
Asked about the possibility of postponing the Beijing Games, as the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics were, rather than cancelling them, Pound said, “I don’t think these things are postponable. In almost every respect the arrow has left the bow. They’re going to start February 4 and it would take a real upset of some sort to change that.
“I think there will be uncertainty surrounding the Games in public, as far as the ship sailing, but right now, the lines are cast off and the boat is leaving the dock, unless Armageddon happens and public health authorities say we lock down every country. At that point, it changes the entire paradigm.”
Pound said that even though the IOC says all systems are go for Beijing, it’s right for national Olympic leaders in countries around the world to acknowledge the severity of the situation.
“Anybody over room temperature has a concern and is alive to the possibility that [cancellation] could happen, although we don’t think it’s going to happen,” he said.
“It’s a cloud out there and you have to be alert to that possibility with a variant that is so easily transmissible.”
The IOC has repeatedly dismissed the possibility that the Games could be cancelled or postponed, citing the rigorous Covid-19 protocols that Beijing organisers have put in place, including daily testing and a closed-loop system that will fully separate Olympic participants from the rest of Chinese society.
Juan Antonio Samaranch, the head of the coordination commission for the Beijing Olympics, was asked last month if he could imagine any Covid-related circumstances that would prompt the IOC to pull the plug on the Games.
“The answer is no,” he said.