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AP Interviews: Italian officials make emotional plea to IOC

Lefteris Petrounias, Greek Olympic Champion in artistic gymnastics, runs with the Olympic torch during the Olympic flame handover ceremony for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics, in Athens, on March 19, 2020. (Aris Messinis/Pool via AP)

ROME (AP) -- With the coronavirus death toll now higher in Italy than anywhere else, two senior sports executives from the country issued emotional appeals Thursday to the International Olympic Committee to revise its stance over the Tokyo Games.

    "I'm not against the Olympics. But saying that the Olympics will still go on is a big mistake in communication," Giovanni Petrucci, who served as president of the Italian Olympic Committee for 14 years, said in an interview with The Associated Press.

    "This pandemic is affecting the entire world," Petrucci added, his voice breaking up with despair. "I know about the billion-dollar contracts, the insurance deals. I know it all. But human life is worth more than all of those things."

    Petrucci's call came after regional Olympic officials rallied around the IOC's stance on opening the Tokyo Games as scheduled on July 24.

    "I don't think I'm the only one who thinks this way. Others just don't want to say it," said Petrucci, who is now president of the Italian basketball federation. "I don't want to attack the IOC. There are too many people there that I know. But I don't know what else to say. I'm not trying to create controversy. I'm a realist. Look at the medical bulletins."

    Athletes have also started questioning the IOC's unwavering stance that the Olympics are still on.

    Athleten Deutschland, the main advocacy group for German athletes, said Thursday that the IOC is "stubbornly moving ahead with the planning of the games," even though competitors are struggling to stay fit with restrictions on their lifestyle due to the virus.

    Italy, with a population of 60 million, has recorded at least 3,405 deaths, or roughly 150 more than in China -- a country with a population over 20 times larger.

    "There's no country that hasn't been affected. It's a matter of respect toward those that are suffering," Petrucci added, refusing to speculate whether the games should be canceled or postponed. "I'm not the one that should be saying. They should be saying this."

    Paolo Barelli, the president of the Italian and European swimming federations, suggested the IOC needs to decide on the games' status by mid-April.

    "By April 15, there will be some athletes who haven't trained for two months," Barelli told the AP. "Athletes are like clocks. They have to train and function impeccably. Many of them still have to qualify, so they need to train not only to qualify but also for the Olympics.

    "So any date after mid-April becomes very complicated."

    All sports in Italy were suspended 10 days ago when the entire nation was placed under lockdown.

    Events like the Olympic qualifying meet for the Italian swim team were postponed indefinitely.

    The world champion Italian men's water polo team has not trained for two weeks due to closed pools and more than half of Italy's swimming squad has been forced to suspend training, according to Barelli.

    "How long can they remain out of the water?" said Barelli, who is also vice president of the International Swimming Federation.

    Top Italian swimmers like Federica Pellegrini and Gregorio Paltrinieri continue to train in Verona and Rome, respectively. But even they might have to get out of the water soon.

    "Those that are lucky enough to have their pool open and near their homes can train. But if the pool is 100 or 200 kilometers (60-125 miles) away, how can they? The venues are operated by sports clubs and cities that can't afford to keep them open for two or three people," Barelli said.

    Even if they could train, many athletes have simply lost focus while worrying more about relatives in the areas of northern Italy hardest hit by the virus.

    "They're not training in ideal conditions," Barelli said. "If this situation continues like this into April, talking about the Olympics is ridiculous."

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