How Postponing the 2020 Olympics will Affect Fencing - First Thoughts

This week, the International Olympic Committee announced that the 2020 Olympic Games will be postponed. The games will retain their name, the 2020 Olympic Games, but they will not be held until 2021.

This move is unprecedented in the history of the Olympic Games. Since they began, there have only been three Olympics that have been canceled. One in 1916, due to World War I, then two in 1940 and 1944 due to World War II. Two other times the Games were disrupted by world events, first the Moscow Games in 1980 that were boycotted by the Western Bloc, and then the Los Angeles Games in 1984 that were boycotted by the Eastern Bloc of countries. There have been a few other smaller boycotts, such as when Nazi Germany hosted the Games in 1936. Other than that, the Olympic Games have been held as planned and have been a show of world unity.

Postponing the Olympics is good

First of all, I have to give great kudos to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for postponing the Games. It shows what a fantastic movement this is. This decision communicates the commitment of the IOC to the safety of  everyone – the athletes, the organizers, the spectators, and the support personnel. The Olympic Games should bring joy and unity of people versus fear and concerns. It’s a great thing.

It is also a very hard thing. It was a tough decision by the IOC, and that is what makes it such a great one as well. No one wanted to see this happen. Yes, every other major event around the world has been postponed in the last few weeks, but the Olympics are not like other events. The Olympics are larger in terms of scope and attendance than any other sporting event, and they bring all sports and nations together. What they do, other people will follow simply because they are so major in terms of news coverage and inclusion of many different sports. They are leaders in this way, and their decision will have a heavy weight on the decision of other major events and minor events between now and June. That is good news for stopping the spread of the virus, and by extension for maintaining safety.

As much as I am heartbroken to see this play out like this, we have now a firm understanding of the path forward, much more than we did when we were in limbo about what would happen with the Olympics. We know now. The decisiveness was needed, and now we can all move on with training and preparing.

Major ramifications

Expect this to have a ripple effect through other sporting events. With the Olympics taking the step to postpone now, almost four months before the Games were set to go, you will now almost certainly see other major events going ahead and calling it. Leadership is a major part of what the Olympics are for, and you are seeing it in action right now. 

This decision will have  a lot of implications on every sport and on every branch of every sport that competes in the Olympics. Obviously all qualifications and all standings will need to be adjusted. I do not know in depth about other sports, but I am assuming that they are like fencing and did not have the chance to solidify their qualifications before this happened. No one had a sure spot in the Olympics yet in many sports, definitely in fencing.

There will need to be some new way of doing this, for every sport. At the time of this writing, I don’t think that the sports federations have really come to a conclusion of how to adjust the standings, but they will have to adjust. That adjustment will have a lasting effect on everybody. It will give some countries and some athletes opportunities. The postponement of the Olympic Games will take some opportunities from some countries and some individual athletes. That is the nature of the decision and the situation. We don’t know how the whole thing will come out when it is said and done, but the process will be endlessly interesting and something to watch with a close eye. 

We do not yet know how the International Fencing Federation or USA Fencing will adapt to this announcement. I will let you know when I do.

American fencing in Tokyo 2020

Countries do not automatically qualify to compete in the Olympics. Athletes from each country compete for position in the qualification time period to even have the chance to go to the Olympic Games. This is true for every sport, not just fencing.

In fencing, the United States was well positioned before this happened. We were one of only a very few countries who, based on the current qualifications, had made it to having all six teams participate in fencing in the Olympics. That means that all men and women and all disciplines – foil, epee, and sabre, would have been qualified. Each team would feature three athletes competing individually as well as the fourth athlete competing as an alternate. Potentially we would have had twenty-four Olympians representing the United States in fencing. 

Even before this postponement, as early as we were in the process, some of the athletes were already qualified. For instance, Mariel Zagunis qualified for both team and individual in women’s sabre. Eli Derswitz, Gerek Meinhardt and Alexander Massialas had qualified for men’s foil – both team and individual. Same goes to Lee Keifer in women’s foil.

This year we had a fantastic surprise in a newcomer in the Olympic team, Nick Itkin, a young athlete that just recently graduated from juniors and who fenced at Notre Dame. He replaced Miles Chamley-Watson, a veteran who fenced in London 2012 and in Rio in 2016. Mile Chamley-Watson  is a two time World Champion, the only American fencer to ever accomplish that feat. At the time of this writing, Itkin is ranked #3 in the United States in men’s foil. With Itkin’s rise, it basically meant the end of the 2020 Olympic dream for Chamley-Watson, but now there is a breath of life for him to represent the United States again. It’s the kind of development we will watch with excitement.

Fresh start for 2020 in 2021

There is no last word, none. A lot of countries and their fencers in the world did not fully complete qualification. There were still supposed to be several competitions during the course of March and April that were supposed to finalize the team and individual standings. We were also looking towards zonal qualifications in the beginning of June that would finalize qualifications for individual fencers in those countries that did not qualify by the team path or didn’t have individual qualify via their own ranking. There was a long way to go, and now there a chance for everything to change. 

Even if FIE wanted to, they could not complete the team qualification or the individual qualification based on the current standings. It all has to be reset. The question is now how they will reset, how the points will be factored in, how the team will be taken into consideration for qualifications. We don’t know, and I think there are a lot of things that are in the air that need to be figured out, discussed, and finalized. My bet is that they will be basically reset to point zero and the qualification will start over from the moment that international competitions resume. That will likely happen sometime in September or October, in that general timeframe. They will start over the qualification season based on some defined rules or some defined set of qualifying events, but it will be changed from what we have now. 

One year is a long time

At the end of the day, we want to have the best representatives in every sport and in every discipline in the Olympic Games. The Olympic Games is by definition a showcase of the best athletic abilities in the world at the moment. 

Nobody I think, and this is speculation, nobody will want to have a team that is obsolete. They will want to have a strong team in the Olympic Games. One year is a huge time in the life of athletes. One year is a huge time in the ways that countries prepare. Whoever was strong today might not be as strong in a year from now. 

Some athletes were supposed to retire after this Olympic Games and they will now need to push through for another year, which is not an easy thing for Olympic level athletes. There are a lot of things that will need to be changed on the international scene. Every country wants to have its best possible athletes to present to the 2020 Olympics in 2021. The United States is no exception. It will be a fascinating thing! Who knows what will happen.

It does not end here. We have a great echelon of other fencers that can try out during this qualification process and potentially take it, similar to what we saw with Itkin and Chamley-Watson previously. This is not only for men’s foil, it is for all disciplines in both genders. There is the rising talent and as I said before, one year in the life of an athlete on this level is huge. Things can change rapidly. I’m not talking only about getting a year older in one year, it’s one year of intense training. It’s additional sacrifices on the personal level. Additional sacrifices and challenges on the financial level, especially in an amateur sport as fencing. And of course it’s time that athletes that need to be extremely careful and not injure themselves. While it is an opportunity for many people, it is also a risk for many. It’s going to be fascinating to see how it plays out.

This whole process is going to bring so many interesting moments. Right now, this is only a first look at what is possible, and from a very narrow perspective. Though the spread of this virus has affected everyone, we have now reached the point where it has taken another step in the history. People who would not have even made the Olympic team will realize their Olympic dream because of this, and potentially get a medal on the world’s biggest stage. Athletes who had a seeming sure place will lose their Olympic dream because of this postponement. 

No matter what, postponement was the right thing to do. The Games are always about searching for the best in our athletes, and really in ourselves. This is a part of why they are so deeply inspiring to people all over the world, even non-athletes. This will mean a different 2020 Olympics, but we should not view it as a loss. It is a change, and one that was needed for the good of everyone involved.

We will be watching and cheering them all on along the way. What a wonderful sport and a wonderful community to be a part of, wherever the path takes us.