TOKYO — President Trump praised Japan's preparations for the 2020 Summer Olympics and said there were still "lots of options" for holding the Games, only hours after suggesting they might have to be postponed for a year because of the novel coronavirus outbreak.
“Just had a great conversation with Prime Minister Abe of Japan,” Trump tweeted. “I told him that the just completed Olympic venue is magnificent. He has done an incredible job, one that will make him very proud. Good things will happen for Japan and their great Prime Minister. Lots of options!”
Abe has staked considerable political capital on the Tokyo Olympics, which he sees as a way to bolster national pride and his prestige.
Japan has repeatedly insisted that postponing or canceling the Games is unthinkable and that its preparations are continuing as normal — a stance echoed by the ultimate arbiter, the International Olympic Committee. So it couldn’t have gone over well in Tokyo when Trump suggested Thursday the coronavirus could upend those plans.
“Maybe they postpone it for a year,” he said. “Maybe that’s not possible. I guess it’s never happened with the Olympics.”
Trump said it might be better to delay than to hold the Games with “empty stadiums all over the place,” but he said Japan would have to make its own decision.
“If you cancel it, make it a year later,” he said. “That’s a better alternative than doing it with no crowd.”
Within hours, Abe was on the phone with the president, although Japan’s government said the 50-minute call had been made at Trump’s request to discuss efforts to contain the coronavirus.
Japan’s Mainichi newspaper said Trump did not mention postponing the Olympics or holding it without spectators, citing Naoki Okada, deputy chief cabinet secretary, who sat in on the call.
“PM Abe stated that Japan is making its effort to host the Olympic Games,” said a senior government official who was not authorized to be named. “In response, President Trump expressed his appreciation for the transparent efforts in this regard.”
Last month, Dick Pound, a senior IOC board member, said the organization could wait until late May to decide whether the Games should go ahead but suggested a cancellation was more likely than a postponement. Officially, though, the IOC continues to insist it is not even talking about postponing or canceling the Games, which are due to run from July 24 to Aug. 9.
On Thursday, the IOC held a ceremony to light the Olympic flame on the site of ancient Olympia in Greece and start the torch relay to Tokyo. The public was kept away because of concerns about the coronavirus, but IOC President Thomas Bach called it a demonstration of the organization’s “full commitment” to the success of the Tokyo Games.
“We remain absolutely in line with our Japanese hosts in our commitment to delivering a safe Olympic Games in July this year,” he said.
But on Friday, the Greek Olympic Committee suspended the remainder of the torch relay through the country. The handover of the flame to the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee is still scheduled to take place next week, without spectators.
In a statement Thursday, the IOC said it remained in close contact with the World Health Organization, the host city of Tokyo, the government of Japan and the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee through a joint task force set up in February.
“The IOC will continue to follow the advice of WHO, as the leading United Nations agency on this topic,” it said.
Mainichi and other Japanese media interpreted that comment as opening the door to a possible postponement or cancellation, especially after the WHO this week declared the virus outbreak a pandemic.
Cracks have also begun to appear on Japan’s previously united front over the Games after an executive board member of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee said a postponement might be the most feasible option if the virus prevents the Games from going ahead and that organizers should start considering such a possibility. A senior ruling-party politician then said Japan needed to brainstorm plans to deal with a possible cancellation or postponement, even though the final decision would be left to the IOC.
“Not thinking about worst-case scenarios won’t eliminate the risk of them materializing,” Shigeru Ishiba, an Abe critic, told Reuters.
But the Japanese government held the line, with Olympics Minister Seiko Hashimoto saying this week that postponement or cancellation was “inconceivable.” On Friday, she said she was aware of Trump’s suggestion of a postponement.
“I have heard that neither the IOC nor the organizing committee is discussing the postponement or cancellation of the Olympics and that they will move ahead with their preparations for a safe and secure Olympics toward their opening on July 24,” she said.
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said every day brought big changes, so she was not surprised by Trump’s comments, but she added that her government would proceed with preparations.
“On the part of the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, cancellation is not an option,” she said.