So much of the time the Olympic “movement” is sham salesmanship, but there was nothing insincere about Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s promise to host the Olympics in 2021 as “a testament to victory over the infection.” One can only imagine how much it cost and pained Japanese organizers to postpone: The economic and collateral toll will be in the billions of dollars, and the complexities of trying to reorganize everything from venue construction to hotel blocs are immense. It’s a sickness in and of itself, the damage. But they and the International Olympic Committee did the right thing for the world, the thing that others in authority are having so much trouble doing at the moment: They put lives ahead of money. They deserve all kinds of credit for that.
As late as Sunday, IOC President Thomas Bach was still doing the distasteful calculus. In a letter to athletes, he declared that a decision to postpone “would still be premature.” He suggested there had been “significant improvements in Japan” that might allow them to hold the Games on time in July “with certain safety restrictions,” though he admitted the outbreaks on multiple continents were accelerating. The IOC needed another month to evaluate all scenarios because of the costs and logistics, he suggested.
But another month would have been irresponsible, even dangerous. And the IOC had already been irresponsible enough, given that six of seven continents are fighting infections, and governments are issuing widespread lockdowns. In early March, Bach urged athletes to keep training “full steam.” And so runners and swimmers were struggling to train when they should have been sheltering. As late as mid-March, some were even traveling, and courting illness.
You wonder how long the IOC would have hesitated if whole countries and federations hadn’t begun to rebel. Canada on Sunday night announced it would not send a team to Tokyo, and Australia told athletes to prepare for the Games in 2021. USA Swimming and USA Track & Field wrote letters urging postponement, giving a firm push in the back to the cautious U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, which after initially refusing to take a stand issued this creeping statement Monday night: “It’s more clear than ever that the path toward postponement is the most promising, and we encourage the IOC to take all needed steps to ensure the Games can be conducted under safe and fair conditions for all competitors.”
The foot dragging was apparently caused by fears over liability and cost. There are reports that the IOC wanted Tokyo organizers to be the ones to pull the ripcord, to protect itself with insurers and in case of any potential litigation. The IOC, perhaps understandably, wanted to insulate itself and partners such as NBC as much as possible from lasting financial damage over an event estimated to cost $25 billion.
But the messaging mattered. Whatever the public sees elite athletes do, it is likely to do as well. They are some of our chief influencers, the makers of manners. The longer the IOC stalled, the more it seemed to soft-pedal the threat and suggest that maybe the pandemic wouldn’t be that bad or of very long duration. The more it risked becoming a carrier of the pandemic itself and jeopardizing athlete health.
There was just one plain speaker in the IOC, longtime executive Dick Pound, and he deserves deep respect for it. I’ve had vehement differences with Pound on everything from anti-doping to overly massive TV contracts and the grotesque growth of the Games, but he has a reflexive outspokenness you have to admire. And he was an honest and candid messenger right from the start. “This is the new war, and you have to face it,” he told the Associated Press back in February. ” … 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?’ ”
No. It is not under sufficient control. There was no option. Even supposing enough countries around the globe could get a grip on the pandemic in the next few weeks — a ludicrous supposition given that India is going into lockdown and the World Health Organization projects the United States will become a new epicenter — did the IOC seriously propose to gather thousands of athletes, coaches and staff into a close Olympic Village setting? And risk a new outbreak? Talk about liability.
For whatever reason, the IOC shifted the burden of postponement to Japanese organizers. It could not act, Bach said, without their “full cooperation.” Abe and the Tokyo committee gave the IOC the out it wanted. And they gave athletes in countries around the world the release they needed to take care of themselves and their families. They put lives ahead of the math.
The hope is that, a year from now, the world can and will repay them for it.