In September 2013, at the Buenos Aires Hilton during the 125th IOC session, Bach had been elected IOC president and Tokyo had been awarded the 2020 Summer Games. Their legacies would be linked and tied to the Tokyo Olympics. But they would be decided separately.
Abe had made himself the domestic face of the Tokyo Olympics. He pitched the IOC personally and pinned his political fortunes to them, planning to use the Games as a showcase of Japan’s remade economy and recovery from the 2011 tsunami. At the Closing Ceremonies of the 2016 Olympics, costumed as iconic Nintendo character Super Mario, Abe popped out of a green pipe in the middle of Rio de Janeiro’s Maracanã stadium.
In his term as president, Bach had presided over the global Olympic movement as it withstood concerns about cost overruns and doping allegations at the 2014 Sochi Games and then economic crisis and the Zika virus at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio.
Until recently, both had been resolute that the Tokyo Games would not be affected by the novel coronavirus. In late January, following a mini-meltdown on Japanese social media amid questions about whether the Games might be canceled, Tokyo Olympic organizers insisted they were “not considering” such action. At that point, fatalities from the virus were still in the hundreds, not the thousands. And even earlier this month, as the spread widened and the death toll began to climb more rapidly, IOC spokesman Mark Adams replied to a question regarding a timetable for a decision by saying: “We’ve made a decision. The decision is: The Games go ahead.” Bach followed by advising athletes to continue to train at “full steam.”
But as the virus invaded most every corner of the globe, capsizing daily life, Abe and Bach found themselves scrambling to protect their own agendas, even while recognizing they needed each other to protect their common interests. . After an IOC member caused a stir by publicly raising the possibility of a full cancellation, Abe needed to ensure the Olympics still would happen in Tokyo and that his country’s investments in them would not be wasted. Bach needed a quick resolution as the World Health Organization’s reports grew more alarming and athletes asked for clarity while training during a pandemic.
The postponement of the Tokyo Olympics, throwing off the quadrennial cycle for the first time since World War II, was not arrived at lightly. Bach couldn’t make the call without both Abe’s blessing and Japan’s ability to manage the web of on-the-ground headaches postponement would cause — ticket refunds, venue upkeep, rescheduling local events. Having staked his political fortunes on staging the “perfect” Games, Abe needed to show his nation the decision was his.
“Bach wanted to drive this through,” said Michael Payne, a former IOC marketing head who maintains close ties to the Olympics, “but not [cause] the Japanese to lose face.”
Behind the scenes, Abe and Bach maneuvered. Abe approached the possibility of altering the Games, careful never to broach cancellation and raising a postponement only in subtle fashion. Bach, a 1976 Olympic fencing champion, parried and gathered strength, even as athletes and other national governing bodies criticized him for inaction.
“We came to the situation where on the one hand we were pretty confident that … Japan in four months from now would be able, could be able, to organize the Games,” Bach explained afterward. “At the same time, our doubts were growing that the world would be ready for this Olympic Games. This situation we had to address.”
On Feb. 25, Dick Pound, a Canadian who is the longest-serving IOC member, told the Associated Press that organizers had roughly three months to decide whether the Games would be able to be held in Tokyo. He also suggested the Olympics would be too large of a production to postpone and they would have to be canceled if the coronavirus proved too risky.
When the bid was awarded to Tokyo in 2013, the city signed an 81-page contract with the IOC and the Japanese Olympic Committee that 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.”
From Japan’s perspective, such a unilateral decision was frightening but possible. In October, Japan felt “left in the dark,” Nikkan Sports News wrote, when the IOC decided to move the marathon to the cooler city of Sapporo because of concerns over the oppressive Tokyo summer heat, against the wishes of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. Abe wanted to avoid a similarly unilateral decision.
Those concerns intensified March 11, when the WHO declared a global pandemic and the tenor of the coronavirus conversation in the United States shifted, with the NBA suspending its season after Utah Jazz forward Rudy Gobert tested positive. Within two days, sports in the United States had effectively shut down, an expansion of how sports across the globe — including Asian soccer and baseball leagues and European soccer leagues — had been affected.
On March 12, President Trump, a key ally of Abe’s, floated the idea of postponing the Olympics, suggesting that would be preferable to holding the Games without fans present. Veteran Japanese political observer Shiro Tazaki cited this as a crucial moment for Japan. Abe did not want to face pressure to cancel, and another world leader bringing up postponement, Tazaki said, provided Abe political cover.
Trump’s statement, Tazaki said, also came just when some members of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party who are close to Abe were beginning to realize hosting the Olympics as scheduled was looking impossible.
“His statement was seen as a lifeboat because President Trump did not bring up cancellation but floated the idea of postponement,” Tazaki said.
Abe, whose investment in this summer’s event was viewed as similar to Russian President Vladimir Putin’s in the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, held a conference call with Group of Seven leaders March 16, and afterward he said leaders had agreed to support a “complete” Olympic Games — a signal Abe wanted to avoid cancellation or an Olympics held without spectators. That day, a Kyodo News poll showed 69.9 percent of Japanese citizens said they expected the Olympics would be postponed.
“This is about the time when the administration was beginning to feel hosting them as planned would be difficult,” a person familiar with the administration’s thinking told the Asahi Shimbun newspaper in a story published Wednesday.
On March 17, the IOC held calls with various stakeholders to reaffirm its confidence in holding the Olympics as scheduled. The organization called the pandemic “an unprecedented situation for the whole world” but said “there is no need for any drastic decisions at this stage, and any speculation at this moment would be counterproductive.”
But behind the scenes, Abe’s words had altered the landscape. The deference baked into Japanese culture meant the Tokyo organizing committee would not discuss alternate plans with the IOC without Abe’s blessing. When Abe spoke after the G-7 meeting, the IOC had an opening.
“That opened a window where the IOC had been for some time trying to engage the organizing committee to say, ‘We’ve got to start looking at a plan,’ ” said Payne, the former IOC marketing head.
Starting that day and lasting through March 19, Bach participated in calls with members of every national organizing committee in the world. He said later every country agreed with the IOC’s strategy.
A statement with resonance
On March 19, the Olympic torch arrived in Japan, at Fukushima prefecture, with the IOC touting a 121-day tour of the country ahead. Hundreds gathered to watch, the kind of gathering public health officials warned against.
As the IOC assured stakeholders, USA Swimming CEO Tim Hinchey could not fathom how the world could hold an Olympics while also prioritizing health and safety. During the week, he had conversations with national team swimmers — including Katie Ledecky, the most decorated Olympian of the 2016 Rio Games — and elite coaches. He realized trying to train while the virus spread and the government locked down pools and other training facilities was untenable, and it had taken a toll on the athletes’ mental and physical health.
On March 20, Hinchey sent a letter to the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee advocating for a one-year postponement of the Tokyo Games. In Rio, American swimmers had collected more medals than any other individual team. USA Swimming was the first prominent governing body to call for such a drastic measure.
“There’s always anxiousness when you decide to stick your neck out and say something you believe in — and not knowing what the world is going to think,” Hinchey said. “It was really important the tone of the letter be humble and respectful because the USOPC are phenomenal partners for us, the IOC, FINA — all these great partners. So you hope they take it for what it’s worth, which is just prioritizing the athletes.”
The next day, March 21, USA Track & Field joined USA Swimming in calling on the USOPC to request the Games be postponed.
A shift at the top
On March 22, a Sunday morning, Bach’s outlook shifted. He awoke to news of a coronavirus outbreak starting in Africa and read reports of the accelerating growth of cases in the United States and South America. He called an emergency meeting of the IOC’s executive board.
Bach then called Yoshiro Mori, president of Tokyo 2020’s organizing committee. Bach said he told Mori to be prepared not only to discuss potential scenarios but to talk with Abe and come up with specific plans for a postponement.
“Cancellation was discussed and considered like all the options on the table,” Bach said. But while the executive board quickly decided postponement was the only option, the IOC also recognized it could not confront the logistical challenges of postponement without Japan on board.
As the endgame neared, Abe felt he needed to project control, according to Japanese news accounts.
After Sunday’s emergency executive board call, Bach announced for the first time the IOC was considering postponement. Still, he said a decision would be “premature” and placed a self-imposed deadline of four weeks to make a decision.
The half-measure — announcing postponement may happen but that it could take a month — was a result of Bach trying to help Abe save face. Japan wanted to clear all of the logistical hurdles first, to roll out the new version of the Games as the 2020 version was postponed. But the IOC realized the rest of the world, especially athletes forced to continue training, would not accept it.
“The IOC went from immediately announcing postponement talks were underway but at same time recognizing there is no way this can wait four weeks,” Payne said. “The Japanese process is wanting to look at all the options. Bach realized this was a non-starter. He began a very intense campaign.”
Pound believes Bach intended to signal a decision had been made but that the IOC wanted to buy time to unveil plans for 2021 when it postponed 2020.
“It doesn’t make sense to say, ‘We’re postponing the Games,’ full stop, because you replace one uncertainty with yet another,” Pound said. “You don’t help your athletes, you don’t help your sports federations, by just leaving that open. Looking back, whether that was the best strategy or not remains to be seen.”
The IOC faced immediate backlash. Although Bach said the IOC received unanimous approval of its strategy from national organizing committees, the Canadian Olympic Committee announced an effective boycott, declaring it would not send athletes if the Olympics took place in 2020. Australia made a similar vow.
From reading the political landscape, Payne believes the response from Canada and Australia was actually welcomed by Bach, if not coordinated with the IOC. If countries started pulling out, Japan would have no choice but to announce a postponement. Payne pointed out that Australian Olympic Committee President John Coates is an IOC member, one of Bach’s closest allies and the chairman of the IOC’s oversight committee for Tokyo 2020.
“It is inconceivable that was just a coincidence that Australia makes that announcement,” Payne said. “It strengthened Bach’s hand with the Japanese: ‘It doesn’t matter whether this gets fixed. We can’t afford to wait four weeks. Let’s just accept this has to be next summer.’ ”
A united front
On March 23, Bach grew more alarmed as the news turned more grim. WHO General Director Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus announced the spread of the coronavirus was accelerating and called for an emergency meeting of the Group of 20 major economic states.
Bach contacted the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee and made his plans clear. He wanted to talk with Abe the next day, and in that call, Bach said, he wanted Abe to outline a proposal for postponement, which Bach then could take back to the IOC’s 15-member executive board.
Publicly, Abe for the first time raised the possibility of delaying the Games. Pound, who is not a member of the executive board, told USA Today that the Games would be postponed, which many wrongly interpreted as a final decision and rankled some in the IOC hierarchy.
“I think [the past few days] were only dizzying because we were making decisions, and then someone else will announce a decision that we haven’t made,” said Anita L. DeFrantz, an American member of the executive board. “That was pretty sticky to deal with.”
Olympic governing bodies from countries that included Germany, Britain, Norway and Brazil called for a postponement. In the evening, having withheld a position even as individual sport federations pressured it to act, the USOPC advocated for postponement. It said it had polled 1,780 athletes, and 68 percent did not think the Games could be fairly contested this summer.
The 15 members of the IOC’s executive board reside around the planet, which inevitably leads to alarm clocks ringing at dismaying hours of the early morning. DeFrantz has come to believe 3 a.m. teleconferences are the worst. On Tuesday morning, she had to wake up for a call that began at 4 a.m. on the West Coast of the United States, which was late in the evening in Tokyo, where Abe was on his phone call with Bach.
As she waited at her home in Southern California, DeFrantz knew, as the rest of the world had come to realize, a big decision awaited.
Before Bach could speak with the executive board, Japanese television station NHK reported Abe’s proposal of a postponement of about a year, further underscoring Abe’s desire to assert himself.
“They actually released their news before we could release ours,” DeFrantz said.
Only the IOC’s executive board has the authority to postpone an Olympics. Given the information available, DeFrantz said, it was a clear and fast decision.
“The president told us about the discussions,” DeFrantz said, “and asked what we thought we should do.”
For weeks, the IOC asserted the Olympics would go on. Less than 48 hours before, it suggested any major decision would be premature. Suddenly, the executive board accepted Japan’s offer to postpone.
“I suppose it was the discussion of Prime Minister Abe with President Thomas Bach,” DeFrantz said. “That was the change.”