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What the postponement of Tokyo 2020 means for Team GB

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Foudy details what it takes to postpone the Olympics (2:01)

2-time Olympic gold medalist Julie Foudy shines some light on how athletes are coping with postponement of the Games and details the IOC's delay in announcing the move. (2:01)

When the Olympic Games were postponed for the first time in their 124-year history, Great Britain rower Polly Swann took another step towards becoming a doctor.

It was a day of mixed emotions for Swann. She took 13 years to complete her medical degree as she juggled that with rowing for Team GB. Now, following Tuesday's confirmation of the postponement, she faces an unprecedented dilemma: use her medical skills to help fight the coronavirus pandemic or continue her journey to her final Olympic Games.

Her plan, before the days of COVID-19, was to enjoy the ultimate swan song to her rowing career at Tokyo before rechannelling her pursuits into medicine.

Opportunities to compete at an Olympics are fleeting for the 11,000 or so hopefuls around the world. Swann, 31, already knows how it feels to miss out -- she was forced to sit out her home games at London 2012 through injury. A flurry of success followed, including becoming a 2013 world champion in the women's pair alongside double-Olympic champion Helen Glover. She went on to win silver in the women's eight in Rio 2016. Now she wants gold.

"For me, the Olympics is such a massive personal goal," Swann says. "It will definitely be my last Games as you only have the ability to go to the Olympics at a certain point in life. I know medicine will always be there for me, but I feel that a global pandemic is much more than sport. Medicine is my passion as well. I feel torn."

Swann was planning to begin her medical career in August, just weeks after she would have been due home from Tokyo. She is just one of the hundreds of British athletes who have ripped up their plans for this summer.


What does the postponement mean for Team GB's athletes?

The immediate impact for athletes is the drop in pressure to train, qualify and compete, all in the middle of a pandemic. Callum Skinner, Rio 2016 cycling gold medallist and senior figure at athlete-led movement Global Athlete, was one of the most vocal advocates for postponing the Games.

"When I started calling for postponement, I didn't take that decision lightly," Skinner told ESPN. "I know athletes have been preparing to be at their absolute peak and that's not something they can just push off and on. But that's why we pushed so hard to get clarity from the IOC.

"As much as home workouts are becoming fashionable, it's not really a way in which to prepare for the Olympic Games. It's really difficult to try and prepare as best you can with all these compromises."

While postponing the Games does relieve athletes of some pressure, it also throws up a multitude of questions. Skinner points out that many athletes train on a four to 10-year cycle, which has now been completely thrown out of sync. New training plans have to be put in place, mindsets have to be recalibrated and the Olympics butterflies have to be dulled for a year.

Team GB canoeist Rebii Simon was training in Seville, Spain, two weeks ago when she got the call to return to the UK. At that stage, her Olympic trials were still set to go ahead and while the disruption was unfortunate, she believed she could train adequately in the UK.

"It was quite stressful to train because we didn't know what was going to happen," she told ESPN. "People were guessing if they were going to cancel trials, but we were trying to train like they weren't going to cancel them."

However, the trials were quickly cancelled upon her return to the UK and Simon was left wondering what to do next. She returned to Hungary, where she has been based for the last eight months. She feels lucky as she can do much of her training from home, but she's hoping to get into a training camp in Hungary where you're permitted to enter if you've tested negative for the coronavirus.

Team GB gymnast Dominick Cunningham says the postponement will be hard for a lot of athletes to take: "I'm pretty strong but I know some athletes don't like change," he told ESPN. "They'll be freaking out."

What dilemmas are GB athletes facing?

While Swann's dilemma may not be replicated across the board, athletes are facing tough decisions on how to approach the next few months.

"There are athletes that have been planning retirement after 2020; there are athletes who are planning other careers. It affects us all in very different ways. We urge athletes to take stock and take a bit of time to process what is going on, have conversations with friends and family and with governing bodies so that they're not rushing into a decision," British Athletes Commission CEO Mahdi Choudhury told ESPN.

For a lot of athletes, the main dilemma is how to get their heads in shape with the hype of competing at an Olympics disappearing overnight.

"I'm not going to lie, I don't really have an actual plan right now," Simon said. "I think I just need a few days or a week to just get my head around things. Keep training but just do the parts I love about this sport, rather than being like 'ok get loads of sessions done and train really, really hard'.

"I guess it's just like a long winter now. I'm trying to think of it like that and from September start again as if it was just another season."

For other athletes, the dilemma is how to train when their sport requires a specialist environment or equipment.

"There's no way I can replicate a gymnastics setup at home," Cunningham said. "So, I'm going to keep myself busy. I'm doing up my vehicles because I like my cars. It gives me a bit of time to give my head space.

"It's been crazy because my mind has been set on this year for a long time.

"I can't stay mentally focused because by the time the Olympics comes around, I will be burnt out. I'm allowing myself to have a bit of down time now and ride the wave."

What does it mean for athletes' funding?

Many Olympic athletes sign commercial sponsorship deals, usually ranging between one to three years in length depending on how much promise they show in the future. Some of these deals could be affected by the adverse financial climate caused by the coronavirus outbreak.

"It is not a great financial climate now and that will have a massive impact on [commercial deals]," Choudhury said. "A lot depends on what individual contracts say. There are clauses in there that address the incompletion of the Games."

There is a lot to be ironed out, but athletes sponsored by smaller businesses could be at risk of losing those deals.

Skinner said: "I've heard second hand from a couple of athletes who have had sponsorship deals fall through or businesses basically say to them 'We're not selling anything, we're looking at redundancies, thus we have to start cutting off sponsorships before we start cutting off our staff.' It is totally reasonable but it does put athletes in a more precarious position."

How will they qualify?

Some sports kept their qualification processes going right up to the last minute. Swann was at Olympic trials for the last two weeks but said it was nothing like she had experienced before.

"Usually it's a really intense atmosphere," Swann said. "You would have a few more new faces around, more media around and some more people coming in and racing for the final trials. We didn't have any of that. It definitely felt very odd. And then the atmosphere inside the training centre ... you had people's Olympic hopes and dreams on the line which are very serious, but all anyone was talking about was what's happening with the Olympics. You couldn't escape it."

However, scores of tournaments have been postponed due to the coronavirus outbreak.

"If I was in a sport that hadn't qualified that would be my most immediate concern. How can I get my qualification sorted in the run up to Tokyo?" Skinner said.

While the time frame has been lengthened, the Olympic organising bodies need to fit qualifiers into an already packed domestic and international schedule.

"It's not just a question of shifting everything back by a year," Choudhury said. "It can't be done overnight. The sporting calendar is already set, world championships and events have already been set. It will impact qualification events as well."

The short answer is no one is exactly sure how the qualification process will play out. With the IOC initially saying there was going to be a four-week consultation period on whether to postpone or not, Tuesday's announcement came unexpectedly quickly for most. Add into that the fact that no one knows when it will be safe to organise large gatherings again in the UK, it could be a couple of months before a path to qualifying is established.

What are the financial implications for Team GB?

Tuesday's announcement over the postponement of the games triggered confusion over Team GB's funding model for the Tokyo Games in 2021.

UK Sport is responsible for managing and distributing funds from the UK lottery to each British sporting governing body. Funds are awarded in four-year cycles to coincide with the Games -- a problem now the Olympics are postponed for a year.

Their current level of funding will remain in place at least until their next financial cycle is due to begin on March 31, 2021 -- just a few months prior to when the Tokyo Games will be likely held. Decisions over funding and bridging the gap will take place over the next three weeks, a UK Sport spokesperson told ESPN.

The organisation initially had a meeting planned with the government's Digital, Culture, Media and Sport committee, where they were due to discuss funding for Paris 2024. However, that meeting has been postponed due to the coronavirus and any rescheduled meeting would now have to look first at Tokyo 2020.


Athletes will now scrub the original start date of the Olympics from their calendars and pencil in next summer. For Swann, she is undecided on her immediate path.

"I haven't made any firm plans yet but I need to find out if they calling for junior doctors to start earlier and also what the process would be... I'm sure there is only so much time out I can take."

Swann is determined to keep fit while at her parents' house in Edinburgh. She is using an exercise bike and rowing machine loaned to her by the local university. Both have been placed in her makeshift gym in the shed at the bottom of the garden, with a couple of the dumbbells that were divided up among the rowing team after their training base in Caversham was shut down on Saturday.

For Swann and Team GB, the next year throws up a lot of uncertainties. But when all the athletes eventually descend on Tokyo in 2021, it will be a momentous occasion worth the wait.