After almost every other sports championship ground to a halt because of the coronavirus, the world’s most prestigious sporting event has finally fallen in line.
On Tuesday, it was confirmed that the 2020 Tokyo Games is to be postponed for a year, to the summer of 2021. The decision was announced after IOC President Thomas Bach agreed to Japan’s unprecedented suggestion for a delay the day before.
While Japanese officials issued statements in the past weeks ensuring no changes in the plan, on Monday, for the first time in months, they hinted of a possible postponement when Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe revealed that delaying the event maybe the only option for the organisers to avoid the worsening situation.
The remarks from Japan’s top official came a day after the International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach declared that the fate of the games would be decided in four weeks after further discussion with the organisers.
According to the Japan Times, the prime minister, who had previously said he hopes to hold the 2020 Games in “complete form,” told a parliamentary session on Monday “when it comes to hosting the 2020 Games, I don’t believe the world is in any condition to do so at this time.”
Abe’s statement came a day after the IOC executive board announced on Sunday that it would decide in four weeks whether it will postpone, cancel or host the games as planned.
Options would include scaling back the games or holding them without spectators. A postponement of one or two years is being discussed, although some organising staff were holding out hope for a delay of a month or 45 days.
Yoshiro Mori, president of the Tokyo Organising Committee, said during a news conference Monday that the torch relay, scheduled to begin Thursday, will be carried out as planned. Organisers were criticised after 50,000 people went to see the Olympic torch on Saturday while it was on display at a train station in Sendai. Mori said the Grand Start ceremony on Thursday will be held, and that he will attend the event himself.
Earlier this week, the Olympic flame touched down in Japan to start its 121-day Olympic torch relay journey around the country on 26 March, bringing a message of peace and hope to the world. The flame was originally lit in front of the ruins of the Temple of Hera in Ancient Olympia on 12 March, and after its week-long stay in Greece was handed over to Tokyo at a ceremony held at the Panathenaic Stadium in Athens.
By Monday, worldwide, more than 335,000 people have been infected from the coronavirus and more than 14,600 have died, according to Johns Hopkins University.
Japan, which had seen 1,084 cases of infection and 41 deaths as of Sunday, seems to be experiencing a respite from the crisis but questions have been raised whether a second outbreak is on the horizon. Experts point out that, even if the epidemic has run its course in Japan, it could be reignited when people from countries around the world travel to Japan come July for the opening ceremony and other Olympic sports events.
According to a report released last week by Toshihiro Nagahama, chief economist at the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute, a one-year delay to the games would cost Japan more than $27 billion. And according to Kansai University professor emeritus Katsuhiro Miyamoto, it is estimated that a one-year postponement of the Tokyo Games would cost Japan up to $5 billion, while cancelling them altogether would cost more than $40 billion.
Japan is not the only loser. Many other related stakeholders will be affected, including sponsors, broadcasters, athletes, partners, volunteers, organisers and local and international spectators who have already booked their tickets to watch the games. All those would undoubtedly suffer great losses if the 2020 Games are rescheduled.
But despite that, the number of voices are growing for organisers to prioritise containment of the outbreak, and consider rescheduling to avoid aggravating the crisis.
Calls for the games to be cancelled have come from the athletes themselves who have not been training for some time and believe they would never be ready in time to compete in a championship as difficult as the Olympics.
Canada, Australia, Norway, France and the USA Swimming Federation have announced that they won’t be sending their athletes to the games if they are held as scheduled. They have called for a one-year postponement until the coronavirus is contained.
World public and official pressure drove the IOC executive board to meet on Sunday where they came up with a scenario related to modifying existing operational plans for the games to go ahead on 24 July or for a change to the start date of the games.
An IOC statement said the step will allow better visibility of the rapidly changing development of the health situation around the world and in Japan. It will serve as the basis for the best decision in the interest of the athletes and everyone else involved.
On the one hand, people are warmly welcoming the Olympic flame. This could strengthen the IOC’s confidence in the Japanese hosts who could, with certain safety restrictions, hold the Olympic Games in the country while respecting its principle of safeguarding the health of everyone involved.
On the other, there is a dramatic increase in cases of Covid-19 around the world, leading to the conclusion that the IOC needs to take the next step in its scenario-planning.
A number of critical venues needed for the games could potentially be unavailable if the games are postponed. The situation with millions of nights already booked in hotels is extremely difficult to handle, and the international sports calendar of at least 33 Olympic sports would have to be changed. These are just a few of many, many more challenges.
A shift in the schedule would need the full commitment and cooperation of the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee and Japanese authorities, international federations and National Olympic Committees. It would also require a commitment from, and collaboration with, the Rights-Holding Broadcasters and sponsors, as well as cooperation from all the games’ partners, suppliers and contractors. It is in this spirit of the Olympic stakeholders’ shared commitment to the Olympic Games, and in light of the worldwide deteriorating situation, that the IOC said it initiated the next step in its scenario-planning.
The IOC said that it will, in full coordination and partnership with the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee, the Japanese authorities and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, start detailed discussions to complete its assessment of the rapid development of the worldwide health situation and its impact on the Olympic Games, including the scenario of postponement. The IOC said it was confident that it will have finalised these discussions within the next four weeks, and greatly appreciates the solidarity and partnership of the NOCs and international federations in supporting the athletes and adapting a games plan.
Following the meeting, the IOC President Bach wrote to the global athlete community to explain the IOC’s approach. In his letter, Bach stated once more that safeguarding the health of everyone involved and contributing to contain the virus is a fundamental principle. “Human lives take precedence over everything, including the staging of the games. The IOC wants to be part of the solution. Therefore we have made it our leading principle to safeguard the health of everyone involved, and to contribute to containing the virus. I wish, and we all are working for this, that the hope of so many athletes, NOCs and world federations from all five continents will be fulfilled, that at the end of this dark tunnel we are all going through together, not knowing how long it is, the Olympic flame will be a light at the end of this tunnel.”
Last week, Bach held a worldwide video conference with all National Olympic Committees to discuss the future of the games.
“Cancellation would not solve any problem and would help nobody,” Bach said Sunday. He added that cancelling the games would “destroy” the dreams of 11,000 athletes from around the world.
The Olympics have been cancelled only three times. The first was in 1916 when they were scheduled to be held in Berlin but were scratched due to World War I. After abandonment of the Tokyo Games in 1940, the 1944 edition in London was also cancelled due to World War II.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under headline: Postponed