2021 Summer Olympics: Just Another Bump in the Road

An analysis of how athletes who were expected to compete in the 2020 Summer Olympic Games have been affected.

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By Susannah Ahn

For 17-year-old Sunisa Lee, the 2020 Summer Olympic Games was a chance to exhibit all of her hard work—from tireless nights of training in the gym to her constant sore limbs—on a global platform. After finishing second to Simone Biles in the all-around event at the 2019 U.S. National Gymnastics Championships and helping the United States bring home the gold at the 2019 World Artistic Gymnastics Championships, Lee was on track to secure one of four open spots on the United States Olympic Team for women’s artistic gymnastics. Now, Lee’s dreams are being put on hold.

With the Olympics postponed until 2021, gymnasts are being impacted to a greater degree than other athletes. Most gymnasts performing at the Olympic caliber, including Lee, are normally in the gym around seven hours a day, perfecting their routines. With gyms closed down and coaching staff stuck at home, gymnasts have lost months of practice in their prime states. In addition, it’s difficult to predict what their physical conditions will be like a year from now when they will go from minimal hour-long workouts to intensive training regiments at the Olympic bootcamp.

While many young athletes will have the chance to compete in future Olympic Games, older athletes are being faced with an ultimatum: cutting their dreams short or putting their bodies through another year of arduous training. Biles, the most decorated American gymnast with a combined total of 30 Olympic and World Championship titles, had planned on retiring after the 2020 Summer Olympics. Biles will be 24 years old by 2021, four years older than the average female gymnast who competed at the 2016 Rio Games. Given the emotional and physical toll it takes to prepare for the Olympics at a relatively older age, Biles has not confirmed whether she will be competing next year.

Biles is not the only athlete whose age acts as a great hindrance for 2021. Track star Allyson Felix will be 35 by the time she competes at the 2021 Olympics. 39-year-old Kerri Walsh Jennings, the oldest beach volleyball player to compete at the Olympics, is favored to medal in her fifth Olympic Games this year. Similarly, 35-year-old Ryan Lochte is the oldest American male swimmer predicted to compete at the Olympics. All of these athletes, with the exception of Biles, have confirmed that they will participate in the 2021 Tokyo Games, but it will be at the expense of putting their bodies through intense pressure for an additional year.

The Olympic Games has been a historically significant event ever since it was first held in Athens. The first modern Olympic Games started in 1896. Since then, not only have the Olympic Games been economically beneficial, but they have also served as a means for nations to come together, to partake in effective and meaningful competition. In fact, the Olympics has only been canceled three times in history: once during World War I and twice during World War II. It’s obvious that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) would have looked to avoid this postponement, but the gravity of COVID-19 is undeniable. Regardless, the delay, especially during a period that lacks unity and pride, is devastating to both athletes and viewers.

Like many others, I have grown up watching the Summer Olympics every four years, constantly in awe of the admirable display of talent, sportsmanship, and craft. I am filled with a sense of pride every time an American stands on the podium, proud and tall, waving to the crowd with a gold medal dangling around their neck. From Gabby Douglas to Michael Phelps, legends are born at the Olympics. It’s especially heartbreaking to know that athletes who have prepared specifically for this summer will not be able to showcase a lifetime’s worth of hard work to the world.

Despite this setback, it’s an athlete’s job to persevere through uncertain and uncontrollable circumstances. This situation is no different. Many athletes showed their support on social media after the IOC canceled the Olympics in March. Part of being an athlete includes expecting the unexpected and working through those circumstances regardless. Olympic athletes have not stopped training because they know goals don’t always get accomplished in a predictable manner. As three-time Olympic gold medalist Tianna T. Bartoletta said, “Dreams have NOT been canceled. Only delayed. Stay in it. Stay safe. Stay focused.”