Olympians Face New Reality
By Martin Rogers
As Major League Baseball takes its initial restarting steps and the NBA gets ready for its own, it is easy to forget that this is the moment when the sports world would have its focus firmly fixed on the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo.
Simone Biles was supposed to be seeking to establish herself as not only the greatest gymnast ever, but one of the finest athletes in Olympic history. The United States men’s and women’s basketball teams were supposed to be continuing their golden streaks. Each night, the track would be lighting up with superhuman feats of speed and power. Beyond the bright lights and the glamor of the podium, thousands of athletes from around the world were preparing to live out a dream.
And then, suddenly, they weren’t. On March 24, the International Olympic Committee moved to push the games back a year. Even then, there were doubts as to whether the grandest spectacle in sports could take place in 2021. As we speak now, those concerns are perhaps greater than ever.
Athletes from virtually every nation on earth are in a state of near-impossible flux. They are training, but most don’t have anything to train for. They are waiting, yet they don’t know when the wait will end. Every situation is different, but they are bonded by a common state of wondering and hoping.
For American boxer Darius Fulghum, the postponement meant delaying his professional career. For veteran U.S. diver Laura Wilkinson, it pushed back her probable retirement.
The last few months have been tough for every athlete, but this current bit might be the weirdest time. This is the part where the dates long circled on the calendar have arrived, yet the Olympics did not.
“I have already grieved through it,” Fulghum told me in a telephone conversation. “I have come to terms with it at this point. But it is pretty crazy to think that in normal circumstances right now I would hopefully be there, in Japan, in USA gear, getting ready to compete.”
Fulghum, a highly-rated 23-year-old heavyweight, was poised to fly to Argentina for the final Olympic qualifying tournament when the ravages of the coronavirus hit hardest in early March.
During the quietest times of lockdown, things were thrown into stark focus. Fulghum is a graduate of the nursing program at Prairie View A&M, and intends for a medical career to be his back-up plan after boxing.
Large numbers of his friends and former classmates were immediately thrust into action on the front lines as hospital numbers swelled and the virus took hold across America.
“I have close friends who have worked directly with COVID patients,” Fulghum added. “I have so much respect for the profession, even more now. I am going to make sure I keep my license so nursing can be my career post-boxing."
Fulghum has boxed for only five years but rolled through the U.S. Olympic trials and had no hesitation in joining the rest of his national team colleagues in deciding to delay going pro when the Olympics were postponed.
He hopes to follow the footsteps of Deontay Wilder, who was an unheralded newcomer to the sport in 2008 before winning bronze and then becoming a heavyweight superstar. An upcoming tournament in Germany, the Cologne Cup, will finally give him a chance to put his training to good use.
“I feel like I am a bit fresher because I haven’t been around in boxing for so long,” he added. “I am still hungry. But having something like this to deal with is something no one could have predicted.”
Wilkinson, also from Texas, is going through the same waiting game, just in a different way. For a 42-year-old mother of four, you wouldn’t expect an extra year on the body clock to be a blessing, but it actually was.
Wilkinson had two-level cervical fusion surgery in 2018 and was scrambling to be at peak fitness for Tokyo. An additional 12 months will allow her to get fully primed, although quarantine posed previously unforeseen challenges.
“It has been pretty interesting trying to train, homeschool my kids and work from home,” Wilkinson said. “The kids used to see me go off to train and then they saw me when I got back. Now they really feel a part of it. It has sparked some conversation about hard work and what it takes to succeed. My four-year-old joins my workouts.”
After dramatically winning gold in Sydney in 2000, with a broken foot no less, Wilkinson took a nine-year break from the sport of diving following the Beijing Games. She now feels better equipped to deal with the current upheaval than some. Her coach, Ken Armstrong, has also been able to offer some perspective, having missed out on the 1980 Olympics due to the U.S. boycott in Moscow.
Tokyo is going to be a strange Olympics, different than any other we have seen. Both the events and the qualification processes may have to be modified, and the crowd situation is obviously yet to be decided. The early hiccup to the restart of the Major League Baseball campaign gives a potential taste of the headaches that could be involved with bringing in athletes from every corner of the globe. All of which is why Wilkinson believes that in some ways a medal in 2021 would actually mean more than even her Sydney triumph.
“The whole world is dealing with the same thing and trying to overcome it,” she added. “The Olympics is already all about bringing people together. This one will be very special.”
American Olympians are generally devotees first, superstars second. There are a handful of celebrity athletes who land big endorsement deals and get fabulously wealthy, but for every Michael Phelps, there is a Fulghum or Wilkinson who must sacrifice so much for their sporting passion.
While other countries have government-backed programs to fund Olympians, the U.S. does not. Fulghum and Wilkinson support the Giving Games Initiative, a series of fundraisers aimed at supporting the national governing bodies of Olympic sports and their athletes.
“The cool thing about this is that it is all the sports coming together,” Wilkinson said. “It is tough for smaller sports to raise money at any time, but especially right now. The athletes are still putting in the work, but we need support.”
It is one more challenge to overcome for the U.S. Olympic team, a group that knows no other way than to persevere.