The decision was made by World Athletics, track and field’s international governing body, which issued a statement that read, in part: “The advice from our medical team, who are in contact with the World Health Organization, is that the spread of the Coronavirus both within China and outside the country is still at a concerning level and no one should be going ahead with any major gathering that can be postponed.”
The unchecked coronavirus has killed 132 and infected more than 6,100, including residents of more than a dozen countries.
With the death toll growing and no vaccine on the horizon, the World Health Organization on Wednesday voiced “grave concern” and is weighing whether to declare “a global health emergency.”
On Monday, the United States’ leading public-health agency, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, recommended that travelers avoid all “nonessential” travel to China.
The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee was said to be studying the CDC recommendation with an eye toward its athletes’ travel. But the organization did not respond to a request to comment about what it is doing to monitor the situation or mitigate danger to its athletes.
Han Xiao, chair of the USOPC’s Athletes’ Advisory Council, said there had been little conversation with prospective U.S. Olympians about coronavirus safeguards. After canvassing several fellow athletes, Han wrote in an email exchange that they would favor any rescheduling that would safeguard their health.
“We are in favor of moving or rescheduling events in order to protect the health of athletes, as long as there is communication to the athletes and the athletes are included in the decision-making process,” wrote Han, a table tennis athlete.
Tokyo, the site of the 2020 Summer Olympics, is nearly 1,600 miles from Wuhan, the central China metropolis that’s the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak.
But grave concern over the virus’s spread, both within central China and now overseas, is being felt around the world, particularly since health officials have confirmed it can be transmitted human-to-human rather than simply contracted at the point of origin.
USA Pentathlon CEO Rob Stull, a five-time Olympian in the sport, explained that at this stage, decisions about whether to proceed with Tokyo 2020 qualifying events scheduled for China are being made by each sport’s international governing body, in consultation with health experts.
“I can assure you this: The [International Sports Federations] are taking it very seriously and erring on the side of caution,” Stull said in a telephone interview. “We will put our athletes’ health and safety first. And I feel confident the Olympic movement will seek the guidance of the World Health Organization, the CDCs of the world and the Chinese health ministry, too.”
Last week, the first qualifying event for the Tokyo 2020 boxing competition, originally scheduled for Wuhan in early February, was rescheduled for Amman, Jordan, in early March because of coronavirus fears.
FIBA, basketball’s international governing body, decided to move an upcoming Olympic women’s basketball qualifying tournament involving Britain, China, South Korea and Spain from Foshan, about 600 miles south of Wuhan, to Belgrade, Serbia, for the same reason, according to the BBC.
In women’s soccer, Olympic qualifying Group B stage matches have been moved twice — first from Wuhan to Nanjing, roughly 330 miles away, and now a full continent away to Sydney after the Chinese Football Association withdrew as host amid the outbreak’s advance.
“The safety of all players, officials and fans is of paramount importance to Football Federation Australia and the Asian Football Confederation, and we are confident we will host a successful tournament here in Sydney,” Football Federation Australia chief executive Chris Nikou said in a statement reported by the Guardian.
Australia, China, Taiwan and Thailand are scheduled to compete in the group stage matches in Sydney.
But on Wednesday, China’s state-run news agency, Xinhua, reported that four Chinese players, including star striker Wang Shuang, won’t be able to take part, their travel restricted by an in-home quarantine order. None of the athletes show signs of having developed the illness, the Chinese outlet noted.
Even the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics are being affected. The International Ski Federation this week canceled the first Olympic test event for the 2022 Games — a Feb. 15-16 World Cup event that was scheduled for northwest Beijing — because of the virus.
Coronavirus typically affects birds and mammals but causes acute respiratory infection in humans.
The current outbreak is believed to have started at a seafood market in Wuhan that also sold slaughtered and live animals, such as donkeys, pigs, dogs, foxes and snakes. That market has been closed by health officials.
The city of Wuhan, which has 11 million residents (comparable to the population of New York and Los Angeles combined), has been placed under lockdown to contain the spread.
Three-time Olympian Gary Hall Jr., who won 10 swimming medals at the 1996, 2000 and 2004 Summer Games and has been a vocal advocate for athletes’ safety, urged an abundance of caution regarding coronavirus.
“The safety and health of the athletes are of foremost importance,” Hall said in a telephone interview. “If there are any precautionary steps that can be taken to put them out of harm’s way, we have to do it.
Hall cited cases in which FINA, swimming’s international governing body, was not aggressive enough in protecting its athletes from environmental hazards — whether excessive heat, pollution or virus.
Several swimmers fell seriously ill after competing in the open-water test event for the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Games because of pollution in the bay, Hall noted. And a four-time American champion swimmer, Fran Crippen, died during a 2010 open-water World Cup 10K swim in Dubai, held despite dangerously warm temperatures. His death was linked to heat exertion.
“Both of those [instance] were preventable,” Hall noted. “FINA could have said, ‘The water is too polluted in Rio; let’s do it elsewhere.’ But they went ahead anyway and overlooked the health and safety of the athletes, with devastating consequences.”
The coronavirus outbreak is reminiscent of the 2002-03 outbreak of SARS in China — also believed to have started at a live-animal market. SARS, an acute respiratory ailment, led to nearly 800 deaths and infected more than 8,000. It also prompted FIFA to move the 2003 Women’s World Cup from China to the United States on three months’ notice.