Tokyo 2020 Olympics inching closer to postponement

Tokyo 2020 Olympics inching closer to postponement


Simon Biles, an Olympics champion, is the most decorated American gymnast of all time.

Tom Weller/Picture Alliance via Getty Images

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Huge numbers of sporting events have been canceled or postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. But a decision has yet to be made about the granddaddy of global sporting events, the Tokyo Olympic Games, set for this summer.

The latest news

  • On March 23, Japan Olympic Committee President Yasuhiro Yamashita said he’s considering postponement, Reuters reported. This sentiment reflects the most recent comments from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
  • Even if the Olympics takes place as scheduled, Canadian and Australian athletes won’t compete. On March 22, the Canadian Olympic Committee and Canadian Paralympic Committee announced that their teams won’t head to Tokyo and urged the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee to postpone competition for one year. The Australian Olympic Committee’s executive board also unanimously agreed not to send a team and urged athletes to instead prepare for a summer 2021 event.
  • On March 22, IOC President Thomas Bach posted a letter to athletes with an update on the committee’s plans. Bach writes that “cancellation would not solve any problem and would help nobody,” adding that the option “is not on our agenda.” He does, however, concede that a postponement is possible, while stating that a “final decision about the date of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 now would still be premature.”
  • On March 20, USA Swimming, the national governing body for competitive swimming, sent a letter to the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee urging the group to postpone the Summer Games to 2021. “The right and responsible thing to do is to prioritize everyone’s health and safety and appropriately recognize the toll this global pandemic is taking on athletic preparations,” the letter said. 
  • The Olympic flame was handed off to the Tokyo organizing committee on March 19, though the ceremony was smaller and more low-key than it would have been without coronavirus fears. “I wish to believe that the journey of the Olympic flame in your country will offer joy and hope to the people of the whole world, who are currently in pain and challenged.” said Hellenic Olympic Committee President Spyros Capralos.
  • The virus came close to the Olympics on March 19, when it was announced that Tokyo 2020 Olympics chief Yoshiro Mori, 82, attended a March 10 meeting with Kozo Tashima, the deputy head of the Japanese Olympic Committee who later tested positive for coronavirus. Mori has no symptoms and hasn’t been tested. The men were seated about 10 meters (about 32 feet) apart.
  • The chair of the London 2012 Olympic organizing committee, Lord Sebastian Coe, himself a gold medalist in track and field, said on BBC Radio 4 that it is too early to decide the cancel the Games. “Let’s not make a precipitous decision when we don’t have to four months out,” Coe said. “If you had to ease (the opening ceremony) date, you’d have to ease it. Anything is possible.”
  • Public sentiment in Japan could be turning against hosting the Games in the midst of an outbreak. A recent poll of 2,200 Japanese citizens taken by public broadcaster NHK reported that 45% of those surveyed don’t believe the Olympics will be held as planned.

Postponed? Canceled? Moved?

“The (International Olympic Committee Executive Board) encourages all athletes to continue to prepare for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020,” the IOC said in a March 3 statement, noting that the group will continue to follow the advice of the World Health Organization. A site set up for Olympic athletes suggests they take protective health measures, such as covering coughs and sneezes and washing hands frequently. Several Olympics-related events have been canceled, including an Alpine skiing test event for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics.

But what if the coronavirus situation worsens, and the Olympics need to shift? In early March, Haruyuki Takahashi, a member of the organizing committee’s executive board, told Reuters that a delay of one or two years would be the “most feasible” option. But Yoshiro Mori, the head of the organizing committee, quickly said the games were still on. “It is our basic stance that we press ahead with preparation for a safe and secure Olympics,” Mori told reporters, according to Reuters.

When will a decision be made?

In late February, Canadian Dick Pound, the longest-serving member of the International Olympic Committee, told the Associated Press a decision on what to do about the games could be put off until late May. At that time, Pound said that if the Olympics are affected, the enormous event is more likely to be canceled than postponed or moved elsewhere. But things are changing daily, so Pound’s opinion on timing may no longer apply. The Tokyo Olympics are scheduled to take place in and around Japan’s capitol city from July 24 through Aug. 9, so the clock is ticking on a decision.

How many people would be affected?

The Olympics are huge, both in numbers of people involved, and in billions of dollars spent. More than 11,000 athletes from 206 nations are hoping to compete in 339 events. Many thousands more are planning to work in some part of the games, from food and souvenir vendors to hotel clerks to trainers and coaches. NBC is set to broadcast the games in the US, even offering a dedicated streaming Olympics package for those who want to watch as much as possible, with no ads. And as evidenced by the fact that tickets sold out last July, thousands more are planning to watch the events, whether traveling from across town or across the planet. All of these people’s lives will be drastically altered should the games be postponed or canceled.

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Has this ever happened before?

Yes. The 1916 Summer Games were canceled due to a little event called World War I. The 1940 and 1944 Games, both winter and summer, were canceled due to World War II. (Japan was the country affected back then, too — the 1940 Games were set for Tokyo and Sapporo.) Other games have been affected by boycotts. By contrast, in 2016, the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, played out as scheduled despite scientists’ warnings about the Zika virus.

The next Olympics after Tokyo are the 2022 Beijing Winter Games, followed by the 2024 Paris Summer Games, and then the 2026 Winter Games in Milan and Cortina, Italy.

CNET’s Sean Keane contributed to this report.

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