“They finally can focus on sport and not so much on public health”: Susanne Lyons gives impressions of Games

In her final Games as the chair of the USOPC, Susanne Lyons is the eyes and ears for LA28 and Salt Lake City

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Susanne Lyons from media summit zoom (Team USA)
Susanne Lyons from media summit zoom (Team USA)

BEIJING — Susanne Lyons, chair of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee (USOPC), tells Around the Rings that COVID-19 “has been a minimal factor at these Games” for Team USA.

“I think we were all very nervous about the COVID situation,” she said in an interview. “Everyone was really afraid that it would, first of all, be so difficult to get through, and secondly that heaven forbid many of the athletes would be affected.”

There have been high profile cases: Elana Meyers Taylor came out of quarantine to take a silver medal in the inaugural Olympic monobob competition, but Vincent Zhou could not compete in the men’s figure skating event after testing positive the day he appeared in the team competition.

“We knew there would undoubtedly be a couple of tragedies that came out of this and unfortunately Vincent is one of the people,” Lyons said.

But for the majority of the 200-plus athletes in Beijing for Team USA, “They finally can focus on sport and not so much on public health,” said Lyons, who attending her final Olympics as USOPC chair.

She said both the USOPC and the national governing bodies are providing more mental health experts on call and athletes are utilizing them.

Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Gymnastics - Artistic - Women's Team - Final - Ariake Gymnastics Centre, Tokyo, Japan - July 27, 2021. Simone Biles of the United States wearing a protective face mask is seen leaving a medical station during the final REUTERS/Dylan Martinez/File Photo     TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY SEARCH "POY SPORTS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "REUTERS POY" FOR ALL BEST OF 2021 PACKAGES
Tokyo 2020 Olympics - Gymnastics - Artistic - Women's Team - Final - Ariake Gymnastics Centre, Tokyo, Japan - July 27, 2021. Simone Biles of the United States wearing a protective face mask is seen leaving a medical station during the final REUTERS/Dylan Martinez/File Photo TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY SEARCH "POY SPORTS" FOR THIS STORY. SEARCH "REUTERS POY" FOR ALL BEST OF 2021 PACKAGES

“I think we learned a lot in Tokyo about the stress,” Lyons said, “not just of competition and high expectations, especially for our most elite performers, but the stress of COVID-19 and not having control over whether you are going to be able to do your performance or not is very difficult.”

Athletes are consulting with the mental health professionals “not just when something happens,” she said, “but before so that they can kind of prepare themselves and be mentally as healthy as they are physically.”

Neither LA28, nor bidders interested in bringing the Winter Games to Salt Lake City are taking part in the IOC’s Observer program, so Lyons has been their eyes and ears.

She has been impressed with the organization of the Beijing Games, despite “a few snags here and there, as there always are.”

A view of Yanqing National Sliding Centre and Yanqing Olympic Village ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in Yanqing district of Beijing, China, January 31, 2022. REUTERS/Edgar Su
A view of Yanqing National Sliding Centre and Yanqing Olympic Village ahead of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in Yanqing district of Beijing, China, January 31, 2022. REUTERS/Edgar Su

“The venues are just beautiful,” Lyons said. “They’re really top notch. The volunteers are super friendly. They’ve really done a very, very good job just orchestrating the Games. And I think it’s a great thing for all of the future Games holder to see if they can do this in the middle of a pandemic, it should be even easier for us to really produce Games that the people at home want to watch, that people who are in the stands want to watch and that the athletes of the world want to participate in.”

She said Salt Lake City is already prepared to stage the next Games, though Milano-Cortina has that honor in 2026.

“They’d be ready to go next week if you let them,” Lyons said. “It’s not really a disadvantage for them not to be here as observers. They would have liked to do that, but none of the countries who are considering bidding are here, so it’s a level playing field, which is important.”

She added that there’s no urgency to make the decision for the 2030 Winter Games.

“There’ll be thoughtful conversations with the IOC, probably in the second quarter of this year, once we all recover from the Games,” Lyons said. “I think Salt Lake just has a very great story to tell and has a lot of the right factors for a very, very successful games up the road. We’ll see when the right time comes, but we’re ready to raise our hands as soon as anyone’s interested in having us raise them.”

She said Team USA is also ready to have Games closer to home.

FILE PHOTO: A front desk staff member wearing a mask and a shield as protection against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) checks in a guest at a hotel inside the closed loop at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China, February 1, 2022.   REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo
FILE PHOTO: A front desk staff member wearing a mask and a shield as protection against the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) checks in a guest at a hotel inside the closed loop at the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China, February 1, 2022. REUTERS/Thomas Peter/File Photo

“We’ve had quite a few Asian games in a row — that’s just a lot of wear and tear for a lot of reasons, but political and physical for getting here,” Lyons said. “So having Games from our perspective in more familiar locations is an advantage. I think it’s something that really allows us to focus more on the pipeline of the developing talent coming up the road with a little less distraction from either COVID or other complications. And it would be nice to have sort of a controversy-free runway to really rebuild the opportunity for everyone to enjoy these Games.”

The next major multi-sport event for Team USA is the Pan American Games in Santiago, Chile, in 2023.

“I think they’re set to potentially host a really great Games,” said Lyons, who is on the coordination commission. “There are a number of countries in South America who have strong interest in sport and it doesn’t necessarily have to be the Olympic Games or the Paralympic Games. I think some of the big- format games, world championships, Pan American Games really are great opportunities for some of the countries in South America who may not have the infrastructure to host the Full Monty, if you will.”

The USOPC has been working to offer more candidates for leadership positions with international federations and has established an international relations task force.

“Really the objective is to first of all interest more of our sports leaders in serving in international roles and really being part of the more international fabric” Lyons said. “We’re using that task force to help educate them about how the movement works and what are key platforms where we can be agents for change in a positive way around the world, whether it’s anti-doping, or any of the big topics of the day. We want to have more people raise their hands and want to be contributors not just at the U.S. level but internationally.”

As a female chairman of the board for one of the most influential nations in the Olympic Movement,, Lyons has been a advocate for gender equality.

Does she think a woman could take the reins when Thomas Bach’s term ends as IOC president?

“I don’t think I want to speculate on that yet,” Lyons said. “I think that whole field is beginning to emerge. And there are some very experienced people who have been around the Movement for a long time who have the passion for the athletes and picking one of them is going to be what’s important. I think it’s a very difficult job and I’m confident that we will see a number of really good candidates, some of whom could be women.”