The Olympics are the biggest event to date scuttled because of the virus, which has now claimed more than 18,000 lives, infected more than 400,000 people on six of the seven continents and upended daily life across the globe.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on Tuesday proposed a one-year postponement to IOC leadership, including President Thomas Bach. The IOC quickly agreed that the Games would be held about one year after the previously scheduled start date, July 24.
“I have made a proposal of about a year,” Abe said. “President Bach said he agreed 100 percent, and we agreed to hold the Olympics by summer 2021.”
Abe said he and Bach agreed “to cooperate in order to hold the Olympics in the complete form, as a testament to victory over the infection.”
After Abe and Bach spoke on the phone, Bach participated in a teleconference with the 15-member IOC Executive Board to determine whether to accept Abe’s proposal. The board members, spread out across the globe, discussed Abe’s proposal. Meanwhile, the Japanese government publicized it. Within an hour, the Executive Board had made the decision that had become obvious: It accepted.
“Our belief is, sport can make a better world,” IOC Executive Board member Anita L. DeFrantz said in a phone interview. “So we didn’t want sport to make a more sick world.”
“But I feel for the athletes,” added DeFrantz, a member of the 1976 U.S. Olympic rowing team. “So many athletes look to the quadrennial games, and they make plans for life thereafter. And this is so disruptive of the normal course of this. But so is this coronavirus.”
In a joint statement, the IOC and Japan’s Olympic organizing committee said they made the decision “to safeguard the health of the athletes, everybody involved in the Olympic Games and the international community.” Athletes across the world had been calling for the Olympics to be postponed, saying the lack of a decision forced them to continue training at risk to their physical and mental well-being.
The Olympic flame will remain in Japan, and the Olympics still will be labeled Tokyo 2020, even though they will take place in 2021.
“The leaders agreed that the Olympic Games in Tokyo could stand as a beacon of hope to the world during these troubled times and that the Olympic flame could become the light at the end of the tunnel in which the world finds itself at present,” the statement said.
Abe called Bach on Tuesday night in Japan to offer his plan. The proposal came a day after the United States joined a global chorus of Olympic governing bodies advocating for a postponement. Some of the countries had vowed not to send athletes if the Games began in July as scheduled.
“In light of the current conditions and for all the athletes, we made a proposal of a postponement of about a year, to hold them securely and safely,” Abe said Tuesday.
Postponing the Games carries massive political, financial and competitive implications. Abe, who has staked extensive political fortune to the success of the Games, said he expects Japan will pull them off.
“As the host country, Japan would like to serve our responsibility thoroughly,” Abe said.
Bach said Sunday it “would still be premature” to decide the fate of the Tokyo Games, and as other major sports events and leagues have suspended operations and canceled play, Olympic officials had resisted calls to alter the Games’ schedule. They spent the past several weeks weighing options, as athletes and sports federations began voicing their concerns. The chorus only grew after Bach sent a letter to Olympic athletes Sunday, acknowledging for the first time that postponement was a possibility but refusing to make a decision for the next four weeks.
The Canadian Olympic Committee said Sunday it would not send its athletes to Tokyo this summer, delivering a devastating blow to the IOC’s hopes to stick to its schedule. Australia’s national committee also urged its athletes to begin preparing for an Olympics in 2021, and Sebastian Coe, the influential head of World Athletics, the international governing body for track and field, called on the IOC to delay the Summer Games by a year. The national Olympic committees of Brazil and Slovenia had called for a one-year postponement, and Norway had balked at sending its athletes to Japan with the current state of the pandemic.
The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee finally put its weight behind the movement Monday evening, saying that “the path toward postponement is the most promising.” The committee had surveyed 1,780 of its American athletes and found that nearly 7 in 10 did not feel the Olympics could be fairly contested this summer because of health and safety concerns and training disruptions related to the covid-19 outbreak.
The loudest early calls for postponement came from athletes, who faced the closure of training facilities, government restrictions and safety hazards while they continued preparations. Han Xiao, a table tennis player who chairs the USOPC’s Athletes’ Advisory Council, said the process could have been smoother had athletes been listened to earlier, but that ultimately officials made the right decision.
“This will give our athletes more certainty and allow them to plan and prepare accordingly moving forward while taking all necessary precautions to protect themselves and their communities,” Xiao said in an email. “There are still uncertainties we will work to resolve and concerns we will be bringing forward, such as whether athletes and teams who have already qualified will have their quota spots protected.”
USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland sent an email to U.S. athletes after the IOC’s decision, telling them that her heart broke for them and that plans for a new version of the Games would begin immediately.
“This summer was supposed to be a culmination of your hard work and life’s dream, but taking a step back from competition to care for our communities and each other is the right thing to do,” Hirshland said. “Your moment will wait until we can gather again safely. I wish I had answers to every question out there, but the reality is this decision is unprecedented, and therefore, presents an entirely new process — for you, for the organizers, for the [sport national governing bodies] and for the USOPC. Please know we are committed to working with you in the coming days, weeks, and months to address them together.”
The IOC’s stunning decision is without precedent. An Olympics has never been postponed, although several have taken place later on the calendar, including the 2000 Sydney and 1988 Seoul Games, which both took place in late September, and the 1964 Tokyo and the 1968 Mexico City Games, which took place in October. The modern Olympics, which date from 1896, have been canceled three times (1916, 1940 and 1944) because of world wars.
“It certainly is the best of a lot of unattractive possibilities,” said Canadian IOC member Dick Pound, the organization’s longest-serving member. “Cancellation is forever. And going ahead in really dangerous circumstances is just not an option, never was. The IOC is not going to put all these athletes from around the world into a situation where the risks would be disproportionate.”
In the weeks that preceded the IOC’s announcement, major sporting events had been scrapped around the globe, with sports leagues and teams suspending operations while public health authorities continue to grapple with the covid-19 outbreak. But the IOC repeatedly stated its intention to hold the Tokyo Games this summer, even as its torch relay was temporarily aborted and athletes around the world began to publicly express reservations about competing this summer.
The torch lighting ceremony was held in Greece without spectators on March 12 over concerns surrounding the growing pandemic, the first time in more than 35 years the torch lighting was not open to the public. But just one day later, the Greek Olympic Committee suspended the remainder of the relay through the country. Japan had received the Olympic torch in Fukushima as part of a relay that started in Greece, a tradition that serves as the ceremonial beginning of every Olympics. Japan chose the site as a symbol of that prefecture’s recovery from a devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear accident in 2011.
“Abe suggested the torch should remain in Fukushima for now,” Tokyo 2020 President Yoshiro Mori said. “I just called the governor to let him know. He was very pleased.”
These Tokyo Games have been in the works for nearly seven years, with billions of dollars invested in hosting the 19-day sporting extravaganza that every four years brings together the world’s best athletes. As concerns over the rapid spread of the disease grew, pressure mounted in recent weeks for Olympic officials to make a difficult decision that posed massive problems for organizers and athletes alike. As they publicly encouraged athletes to continue training for this summer, they privately discussed holding the Summer Games without spectators or rescheduling the world’s largest sporting event for a later date, possibly in the fall or the summer of 2021
The Olympics draw more than 11,000 athletes and 25,000 journalists from more than 200 countries — plus hundreds of thousands of foreign tourists — running counter to the practice of social distancing advised by public health officials. The Paralympics, scheduled to begin on Aug. 25, were expected to attract 4,400 participants from around the world as well.
Concerns first started to escalate in late February when Pound suggested that a cancellation was possible, saying the IOC likely had only a couple of months to choose a course of action.
“This is the new war, and you have to face it,” he told the Associated Press in February. “In and around that time, I’d say folks are going to have to ask, ‘Is this under sufficient control that we can be confident about going to Tokyo or not?’”
Japan has been among many countries grappling with the disease. There have been 42 deaths related to covid-19 there and more than 1,100 people infected, and the country shut down its schools last month to help slow the spread of the virus.
Across the world, coronavirus began to disrupt athletic schedules, causing the cancellation or postponement of several qualifying events. As gyms and facilities closed down — including two U.S. Olympic training centers — many athletes struggled to find place to train. Still, at an IOC executive board meeting in March, a spokesman said the organization has not even discussed contingency plans and vowed the Games would begin on time.
Bach earlier issued a letter to athletes reiterating that “the IOC is fully committed to a successful Olympics Games Tokyo 2020, starting 24 July,” and urged them to continue training accordingly. “Please go ahead with 'full steam,’” Bach wrote on March 5. He held a series of phone calls with stakeholders 1½ weeks later, sharing the same message.
While Olympic officials often said health and safety are a priority, big money is also at stake. The Olympics are a costly undertaking, and these Summer Games were expected to carry a price tag of $12.6 billion — although some Japanese estimates have suggested the actual costs would ultimately be much higher. Tokyo was awarded hosting rights in September 2013 and has been prepping ever since, building new venues, repairing infrastructure and preparing to host hundreds of thousands of visitors.
The Games also generate big revenue. The IOC, a nonprofit organization, brought in more than $5 billion during the most recent four-year Olympic cycle, nearly three-quarters of which came from broadcast rights. NBC, the rights-holder in the United States, contributes about half of that and thus carries a lot of sway with the IOC. Comcast, NBC’s parent company, has said insurance coverage would ensure the network doesn’t suffer losses, although it would miss out on Olympic-related advertising revenue. The Summer Games are typically a ratings boon during otherwise slow summers. NBC was not eager to pit Olympic broadcasts against NFL or new programming in the fall, making rescheduling a difficult endeavor.
“These are extraordinary and unprecedented times, and we fully support the IOC’s decision to step up its scenario-planning for the Tokyo Olympics,” an NBC spokesman said in a statement Sunday, before the IOC changed course. “We are prepared to stand behind any decision made by the IOC, the Japanese government, and the world health officials with whom they are working regarding the Tokyo Olympics.”
The city of Tokyo signed an 81-page “Host City Contract” with the IOC and the Japanese Olympic Committee in 2013. The contract allows the IOC to cancel for a variety of reasons, including war, boycotts or if “the safety of participants in the Games would be seriously threatened or jeopardized for any reason whatsoever.”
The country’s Olympics minister, Seiko Hashimoto, told lawmakers in early March the contract gave Japanese organizers leeway to postpone the Tokyo Games but only if they were held by the end of 2020.
According to the contract, the IOC was required to give at least 60 days notice to cancel, but the governing body gave no indication publicly in recent weeks it was leaning in that direction. The IOC said that while it intended to follow the advice of the World Health Organization, the words postponement or cancellation were never even uttered at its most recent executive board meeting.
“We’ve made a decision,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams told reporters in early March. “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.”
Experts say a delay will pose logistical problems in terms of the global sporting calendar and would also upend the schedules for athletes, who have been targeting the summer of 2020 and built their lives and training routines around peaking competitively this year. Tuesday’s postponement will have major implications for the World Athletics track and field championships, scheduled for August 2021 in Eugene, Ore., and the FINA world aquatics championships, slated for next July and August in Fukuoka, Japan.
Even before Tuesday’s decision, the pandemic had already wreaked havoc on the pre-Olympic schedule, forcing the postponement or cancellation of several international qualifying events. Every single sport was impacted, casting uncertainty on the rigid qualification process for the many athletes still trying to make the Olympics.
Denyer reported from Tokyo.