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As Olympics concerns mount amid spreading coronavirus, IOC says ‘the Games will go ahead’

A couple wearing protective face masks walk past the Olympic rings in front of the Japan Olympics Museum in Tokyo. (Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters)
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The International Olympic Committee stridently doubled down on its stance that the coronavirus will not affect the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, even after a Japanese official raised the possibility of a postponement during a government hearing.

The IOC Executive Board, holding a scheduled meeting at its headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, released a statement Tuesday expressing “full commitment to the success” of the Tokyo Olympics taking place from July 24 to Aug. 9 as originally planned. An IOC spokesman later said the organization has not even discussed contingency plans and vowed the Games would begin July 24 despite the global spread of, and unease regarding, the coronavirus.

“The IOC remains fully committed to the success of the Olympic Games #Tokyo2020,” IOC President Thomas Bach said, through the IOC’s Twitter feed. “I encourage all athletes to prepare for the Games with 'full steam.’ ”

The Olympics are the perfect way to spread a virus, but a decision on the Tokyo Games can wait

The IOC said it intends to follow advice from the World Health Organization and encouraged athletes to continue training for the Olympics as planned. A suspension or cancellation would be massively disruptive for athletes, many of whom design training schedules years in advance to peak for the Olympics.

On Tuesday in Japan, the country’s Olympics minister said its contract with the IOC would allow it to suspend the Games.

“The contract calls for the Games to be held within 2020. That could be interpreted as allowing a postponement,” Seiko Hashimoto said in response to a lawmaker’s question in parliament, Reuters reported.

Still, at a news conference Tuesday evening in Lausanne, IOC spokesman Mark Adams dismissed the possibility of the coronavirus affecting the scheduled start of the Olympics, a remarkable show of confidence given the uncertainty surrounding the disease, for which there currently is no vaccine.

“For us, the Games are going ahead on the 24th of July, and we confidently expect to deliver them on that date,” Adams said. “All the advice we’ve been given is that that can go ahead, from the WHO and other organizations that are competent.”

“You can ask your question many, many ways,” Adams added later. “But the conclusion from us is the Games are going ahead. The Games will go ahead. We’re confident they will go ahead and we’re confident they will start on the 24th of July. All the rest is speculation.”

Adams cited the lack of an international travel ban and the WHO having yet to declare a pandemic as reasons for Bach’s certitude. Adams said he wanted to avoid “mass speculation” and “fevered imaginations” by relying on experts, primarily the WHO.

Asked whether the IOC had a deadline about whether to postpone or cancel the Olympics, Adams insisted there was no need.

“We’ve made a decision,” ­Adams said. “The decision is: The Games go ahead. That was made some time ago. We see no reason to change that decision. All the advice we have at the moment is, the Games are going ahead, from all the competent authorities.”

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Speculation about the fate of the Games, even five months away from their start, has grown as the coronavirus has spread. Canadian IOC member Dick Pound said in an interview with the Associated Press last week that the IOC would have until late May, about two months before the start of the Games, to decide whether to cancel them. He said moving them would present too many logistical challenges. The IOC quickly asserted Pound’s comments did not reflect its stance.

Postponing would raise many issues, the thorniest of them coming from financial considerations. The IOC receives the majority of its revenue from its television rights contract with NBC, which would not want to pit Olympic broadcasts against NFL programming in the fall.

In interviews last week, multiple health experts said it is too early to know how the coronavirus could affect the Olympics, in part because so little is known about the disease and when possible vaccines or medication will become available. But they cautioned against the IOC’s insistence that everything will be fine.

“They should let people know that we are currently in the midst of a pandemic, and social distancing is a significant public response element of pandemics,” said University of Nebraska professor Ali Khan, formerly the director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “We should expect that we will have to factor that into the Olympics.

“I do not like the message that the risk is low and there’s nothing to worry about and things will be fine. I think they should engage their community to say that there’s a possibility if this epidemic is not in check, we will need to make adjustments and cancel the event. That’s what I would want to hear: If they have to cancel the Olympics, what are they going to do?”

Olympic organizers have said the coronavirus could alter the torch relay, a tradition in which an Olympic flame is carried around the world in advance of the Opening Ceremonies, beginning in Athens. Greek Olympic officials said the lighting will go forward next week as scheduled, according to the Associated Press. Greece has seen seven cases of the coronavirus, all among people who recently traveled to Italy.

The coronavirus has already wreaked havoc on international qualifying events. Last week, the International Triathlon Union announced that its qualifying would be moved from China to Spain. On Friday, FINA announced the women’s water polo qualification tournament, hosted in Trieste, Italy, would be delayed from March 8 to May 17. On April 20, it will decide if Trieste can still host the event or if needs to be moved. Baseball’s qualifying tournament, scheduled to be held in Taipei, was pushed from April to July, the sport’s governing body announced Monday.

Adams acknowledged those challenges and said the IOC would need to be “flexible” to accommodate qualification, but he expressed confidence the events will take place in time.

The Olympic men’s soccer qualifying tournament for Concacaf, a federation made up of North American and Central American countries, is scheduled to begin March 20 in Guadalajara, Mexico. It remains on schedule.

“At Concacaf we are closely following the Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines in the United States, and monitoring public health developments across the entire region,” Concacaf spokesman Nicholas Noble said in a statement. “Based on the information available to us at this time, we are working on our upcoming tournaments going ahead as planned. We are in ongoing discussions with our member football associations, clubs and other stakeholders in all the countries we operate and will of course follow any new guidance provided by local authorities or relevant government departments.”

An Alpine skiing test event for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics has also been canceled.

Simon Denyer contributed from Tokyo.

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