With word that the Tokyo Olympics will be postponed until 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic, the focus in Omaha on Tuesday immediately turned to making sure the U.S. Olympic Swim Trials can still be held here a year from now.
Josh Todd, president of the Omaha Sports Commission, said USA Swimming officials made it clear again Tuesday that they want to hold the Trials in Omaha next year.
Making that happen, though, will depend on the yet-to-be-announced new schedule for the Games, how those dates dictate the schedule for the Trials, and how the Trials schedule would then fit into the calendar of the CHI Health Center, the arena that every four years is transformed into one of the world’s largest swimming venues for the Trials.
“Our central focus right now continues to be ensuring the Swim Trials stay in Omaha in 2021,” Todd said. “We are all working towards this goal.”
Once the Olympics are rescheduled, officials with the Metropolitan Entertainment and Convention Authority, which operates the CHI Health Center, say they will try to be both flexible and accommodating in working with USA Swimming so Omaha can have the chance to host the Trials for the fourth consecutive Olympics.
“We definitely want to work with the organizers to try to make this happen,” said Kristyna Engdahl, director of communications for MECA.
Past Olympic Trials have provided a big economic splash for Omaha and its tourism industry.
The 2016 Trials attracted the nation’s top swimmers to Omaha and generated an estimated $74 million in economic impact. And that doesn’t even count the value of all the exposure the city gets from having live national TV coverage from Omaha for eight straight nights, highlighting the city and its ability to pull off major events.
But for Omaha, that will have to wait. The International Olympic Committee made it official Tuesday and announced that the 2020 Games set for Tokyo will be postponed because of the worldwide COVID-19 outbreak.
In a joint statement, the IOC and Japan’s Olympic organizers said they “concluded that the Games of the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo must be rescheduled to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021, to safeguard the health of the athletes, everybody involved in the Olympic Games and the international community.”
They also said the rescheduled event “could stand as a beacon of hope to the world during these troubled times and that the Olympic flame could become the light at the end of the tunnel in which the world finds itself at present.”
Officials in Omaha are similarly now looking for signs of light. By noon Tuesday, Todd had already spoken several times with Colorado Springs-based USA Swimming, the governing body for the sport in America.
Todd said that while all parties are committed to keeping the Trials in Omaha, there’s not a lot anyone can commit to until the new Olympic schedule is out.
“Essentially, we will have to work backwards from that,” he said.
Under the previous schedule, USA Swimming set the Trials for June 21 through 28, essentially five weeks before the start of swim competition in Tokyo. USA Swimming officials said Tuesday that they would similarly base the new Trials schedule on when the Games are set to begin.
But then those preferred Trials dates need to work for MECA. Not only does the arena and adjoining convention center need to be available for the week of the Trials, the arena needs to be available weeks prior for the erection of the massive Olympic-sized pool. This year’s move-in date for USA Swimming and the Omaha Sports Commission was May 20.
“Right now it’s a lot of wait and see,” Engdahl said. “It would take a little bit of juggling, but we still have to wait for a clear snapshot of how things are going to unfold.”
Sign up for World-Herald news alerts
Be the first to know when news happens. Get the latest breaking headlines sent straight to your inbox.
At least as of now, a look at MECA’s online schedule doesn’t show any big barriers to holding the Trials in 2021 under a similar time frame to what was planned this year. There are currently no listed events for either May or June in the arena.
There are a scattering of events in the convention center in both May and June. But from June 17 through July 12, no events are scheduled.
It’s possible the College World Series could also come into play in setting the Trials schedule.
Next year’s CWS is set to begin June 19, almost a week later than this year’s series was supposed to be played. So depending on when the Olympics are scheduled, that could require still more schedule juggling.
USA Swimming has shown willingness in the past to adjust its preferred schedule to work around the CWS. It did so in 2012. And the two events have shown they can co-exist in downtown Omaha if they overlap for a number of dates.
Not only have the Trials been good for Omaha, Omaha has been pretty good for the Trials and USA Swimming, too. That’s one reason USA Swimming has continued to bring them back here every four years since Omaha first hosted in 2008.
Swimmers from Michael Phelps on down have raved about the record-breaking crowds and electric atmosphere. And they often say the CHI Health Center represents the perfect Trials venue.
The warmup pool is conveniently located in the convention center, right next to the arena. That’s a setup not available in most cities, where arenas and convention centers tend to be in separate facilities. The competition venue is also only five minutes from the airport, connected to a major hotel by a skywalk and close to the Old Market entertainment district.
USA Swimming didn’t even go out for bids before awarding the 2020 Trials to Omaha.
The Trials were supposed to be part of a big spring and summer of sports for MECA and the city’s tourism-related businesses. Combined, the Trials, NCAA “March Madness” basketball games and the CWS figured to pack more than $150 million in economic punch.
Now all have fallen victim to the coronavirus. The CWS and basketball tournament were lost two weeks ago when the NCAA canceled all remaining winter championships and wiped out the entire season for spring sports such as baseball.
But while the 2020 CWS and the tournament games are lost for good, there’s hope that the Trials will become just a one-year postponement.
Tracie McPherson, director of communications for the Omaha Convention and Visitors Bureau, said the bureau is telling hotels and the 3,000 people who made multiple-night reservations for the trials to await further instructions from USA Swimming.
“We feel we have to let USA Swimming work through the logistics,” she said. “Once they do, we will all know how to move forward.”