With less than 48 hours until it was scheduled to begin — the Olympic weightlifting was set to start at 10am on Thursday, with powerlifting and bodybuilding events starting at noon — the convention component of the 2020 Arnold Sports Festival has been canceled due to concerns about the coronavirus outbreak.
That means there will be no “expo” component, no trade show, no thousands of visitors gathering indoors. Limited competitions will be held, but no spectators will be allowed. The one exception will be the Arnold Classic Finals on Saturday night, which spectators will be allowed to attend.
The announcement was made at a press conference at 6pm EST on Tuesday afternoon, where journalists heard from Ohio’s Governor Mike DeWine, Mayor Andrew Ginther, public health officials, and, via phone, Arnold Schwarzenegger himself.
“This is of course a very sad moment for us,” said Schwarzenegger. “Because we have been doing this now since 1976 when we held the first Mr. Olympia and Mr. Universe competition in Columbus, Ohio. And ever since then we have been doing this without any interruption whatsoever.”
Officials were caught between a rock and a hard place. The Arnold Sports Festival brings together 20,000 athletes from 80 different countries, and it has become a significant feature of Columbus’s economy. It’s been held in the city every year for decades, and this year the four-day event was estimated to bring over 200,000 tourists and over $50 million into the city.
“Let me be clear,” said Schwarzenegger. “We have the biggest health and fitness festival in the world. But we will never choose making money over people’s health.”
The decision to cancel the convention component, it was repeatedly stated by the governor and mayor, did not come lightly, but the rapid, worldwide spread of coronavirus resulted in the first deaths in the United States this week. Nine deaths have been confirmed stateside so far and at the time of writing, cases have been reported in thirteen states: Arizona, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, New York, North Carolina, Oregon, Rhode Island, Wisconsin, and lastly, Washington State, where thus far all the fatalities have occurred.
Ohio, Governor DeWine pointedly tweeted prior to the news conference, currently has zero confirmed cases. Amidst fears of the virus spreading to Columbus, over 9,000 people signed a Change.org petition requesting the cancellation of the Arnold Sports Festival, “for the safety of all Ohioans, especially the children, the elderly, people with diabetes or other pre-existing conditions.”
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Governor DeWine explained that the change in schedule was in part because of new advice from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, changed its guidance for mass gatherings just a few hours prior to the announcement.
“This new guidance requires us to consider the capacity of local departments to prevent community spread in connection with mass gatherings of people,” DeWine explained, later adding,
Everything in life is a risk. We don’t eliminate risk in life. We get in the car, go to church, go to basketball games. But with regard to the Arnold Classic, continuing it as planned simply was an unacceptable risk. (…) The circumstances at the Arnold are ideal for the disease (with) significant congestion in very small spaces over a four-day period of time.
While thousands of athletes are still attending the Arnold Sports Festival, it is the most recent in a series of sporting events to be seriously affected by the virus’s spread, with the East Asian Weightlifting Championships and IWF Junior World Weightlifting Championships both canceled last week. (The former event was scheduled for February 27 to March 3, Junior Worlds was slated for March 14 to 21.)
The day the announcement was made regarding the Arnold Sports Festival, the World Health Organization‘s latest situational report stated:
- There had been 88,948 confirmed cases worldwide
- There had been 3,043 deaths worldwide
- 1,804 new cases had been reported in the previous 24 hours worldwide
- Cases had been reported in 64 countries (6 new in the last 24 hours)
- 128 deaths (24 new) had occurred outside of China.
The vast majority of cases are in China, where the numbers were:
- 80,174 confirmed cases (206 in the previous 24 hours)
- 2,915 deaths (42 in the previous 24 hours)
Currently, the WHO is not calling the virus’s spread a pandemic, in part because there’s not yet evidence the virus “is spreading freely in communities” and cases are still “traced to known contacts or clusters of cases.”
Thus far, representatives from the International Olympic Committee have given no indication the Summer Olympics will be moved or canceled.
Featured image via ArnoldSports on Instagram.