CHAMPAIGN — Justin Spring knows what it’s like to be an Olympian.
What it means to wear the red, white and blue uniform with “Team USA” emblazoned across your chest during the quadrennial event that is considered by many to be the world’s foremost sports competition.
The Illinois men’s gymnastics coach and former Illini standout, after all, was a member of Team USA during the 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics.
He has the medal to prove it.
The 36-year-old Houston native, who now in his eighth season as the Illini’s head coach, was a member of the American squad that won the bronze medal in the gymnastics team competition during the Beijing Games 12 years ago, with Spring scoring 15.900 on vault, a team-leading 15.850 on parallel bars, 15.675 on horizontal bar and 15.200 on floor exercise.
So what was his reaction when it became clear that the 2020 Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo would be postponed?
Spring supported the move.
“I think it was the right decision to postpone,” Spring said Monday, less than 24 hours before the International Olympic Committee officially postponed the Tokyo Games to sometime in 2021, the latest major sporting event affected by the global health threat posed by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It sucks,” the Illinois coach continued. “It’s awful. It’s tough, especially because it’s something that’s out of (the athletes’) control. But it had to be done. The vast majority of these Olympians weren’t able to train in the way they need to to be ready for the Olympics. The entire world has been put on notice and put on lockdown.”
Spring’s Illini team also saw its season end abruptly with a month-plus still to go when the NCAA and Big Ten canceled all winter and spring sports competitions on March 12. Illinois was in Puerto Rico at the time for an invitational meet.
The postponement of the Olympics is unprecedented, at least in modern history. The Olympics, which were set to draw close to 11,000 athletes from 200-plus countries to the island nation of Japan this summer, had only been canceled previously during periods of war, but never suspended.
Spring gave credit to national delegations for placing pressure on the IOC. Australia and Canada both indicated before Tuesday’s announcement they would not send athletes to Tokyo had the Summer Games been played as scheduled. USA swimming and USA track and field — whose athletes make up one-third of the entire U.S. team — also pushed for a postponement.
“What a power move by Canada to say we’re not sending people to Tokyo,” Spring said. “What a leadership move by Canada, a major delegation from North America. That was a big left hook to the IOC. Not that that makes all the difference (in the final decision), but it (was) still a big blow to the IOC.”
In late March, Spring said, many Olympic athletes are “in the red zone” of their preparations. With several countries putting their citizens on lockdown in an effort at social distancing to offset the spread of the novel coronavirus, many athletes were forced to change how they had been training for the upcoming summer games.
In the case of the U.S. gymnastics teams, the athletes would have been gearing up for the Olympic Team Trials from June 25-28 at the Enterprise Center in St. Louis. Now, those preparations are completely on hold.
“You can’t train with anyone, bolts on doors (at training facilities), locked down,” Spring said of the situation facing Olympic athletes before the 2020 Games were postponed. “You have lost weeks (of training). You see on Facebook these guys are looking for training facilities, for God sakes. You can only do so much at home. (Normal training) was taken off the table for many people.”