Mariel Zagunis is a fencer from Beaverton, Oregon. She’s competed in four Olympic Games and has won two gold medals. She wants another medal and had her eyes set on the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. But a year later, she still hasn’t had her chance to compete. But that could all change in July at the 2021 Summer Olympic Games.
“Life would be so much different if none of this COVID stuff was happening,” Zagunis said.
Zargunis said that preparing for an event that has been postponed and rescheduled has been challenging mentally.
“For an athlete it’s very difficult to train and prepare and even get motivated when it’s like ‘we’re competing in October, oh no, wait, we’re competing in December. Oh wait, it might be February,’” Zargunis said.
And with no international competitions happening during the pandemic, the veteran fencer hasn’t had the opportunities to compete.
“In the 16 months leading up to Tokyo I will have competed once,” Zagunis said. “That was one of the biggest disappointments, when they announced that there wouldn’t be international competitions, because especially leading up to the games, you want to kind of feel other opponents out.”
Even now with a date set in July for the 2021 Olympics in Tokyo, there is still skepticism over whether it will, or should, happen.
“There’s been a lot of arguments about that, and I try to not get too emotionally involved because this past 14 months, and then of course the next couple months leading up to Tokyo, have been such a roller coaster,” Zagunis said.
One of the people making those arguments is Jules Boykoff. He’s a professor of political science at Pacific University and the author of the book “Nolympics.” He wrote a recent op-ed in the New York Times entitled “A sports event shouldn’t be a superspreader, cancel the Olympics.”
“Arguing for cancelation brings me no joy when I think about athletes … and all they’ve done to try to achieve their Olympic dreams,” Boykoff said.
He said the International Olympic Committee is not requiring vaccines for athletes participating this summer. He says less than 3% of the population in Japan is fully vaccinated right now and they’re in the midst of a fourth wave of coronavirus. The U.S. State Department recently issued a level 4 travel advisory for visiting Japan.
“I stand with medical officials in Japan and across the world who are clamoring for the Olympics to be cancelled. I’m standing with 83% of the population in Japan that do not want the Olympics to happen this summer, 83%. That’s unparalleled in the political history of the Olympics.”
In addition to not having a requirement for vaccinations, the Olympic committee is not implementing any quarantine mandates for people entering the country. He said there’s also a conflicting number on how many of the athletes will be vaccinated.
“I respect the wishes of those in Japan who are extremely concerned that having 11,000 athletes from around the world as well as another 70,000 or so support staff enter their country from 200 places around the world, none of whom are required to be vaccinated,” Boykoff said.
He said that historically, Olympic games have been controversial in the countries that host the event and this year is exacerbated by the pandemic.
“Doctors across Tokyo and Japan are wondering aloud if the actual legacy of the Olympic games could be an Olympic strain of the virus, and that could be what the Olympics would be known for at the end of the day, “Boykoff said. “That’s a horrifying prospect. "
“I think this could be an actual moment of solidarity for global health were the Olympics to be canceled,” he added. “… And let’s not forget, we’re talking about a wholly optional sporting spectacle here, not some essential service to humanity.”
But what about athletes like Zagunis who have worked their entire lives to compete?
“I think that no matter what happens, but especially if the Olympics get canceled, that the International Olympic Committee, and those who run that committee, need to put more money into increasing mental health support and counselling for athletes,” Boykoff said.
Zagunis has spent over a year walking on eggshells, wondering if this event she’s trained for, for the past five years will happen. While hopeful she will get to compete, she’s said she’s mentally prepared for the possibility that she won’t.
“What I’ve learned in every drop of sweat that I’ve put into this past 26 years of fencing will really help carry me through in these uncertain times,” Zagunis said. “… If it doesn’t make sense and it’s not going to be safe, then I would, of course, completely support that decision.”