For the first time ever, the leadership of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has publicly indicated it is seriously contemplating the rescheduling of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Summer Games, in light of the growing global spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus.
An official statement issued by the IOC today announces that the executive board (EB) of the non-governmental sports organization is taking the next step with planning alternate scenarios for the Games of the 32nd Olympiad.
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A potential postponement of the Tokyo Games necessitates a complex review of a multitude of logistical plans relating to the availability of venues, facilities, and hotels, and coordinating with the local organizing committee, Japanese government officials, rights-holding television broadcasters, sponsors, National Olympic Committees (NOC), international sport federations (ISF), and suppliers and contractors.
Various NOCs and ISFs have already indicated their strong preference for a postponement, with NOCs potentially withholding their country’s athletes from participating.
Rescheduling the Games could also conflict with other sports events and tournaments, with rights-holder broadcasters paying USD $4 billion in the four-year cycle leading up to 2020.
“A number of critical venues needed for the Games could potentially not be available anymore. The situations with millions of nights already booked in hotels is extremely difficult to handle, and the international sports calendar for at least 33 Olympic sports would have to be adapted. These are just a few of many, many more challenges,” reads the statement.
“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 EB has today initiated the next step in the IOC’s scenario-planning.”
One scenario mentioned by the IOC is continuing the Games as scheduled, beginning on July 24, but with modified operational plans that include health safety restrictions.
The IOC notes there have been “significant improvements” in Japan in their coronavirus situation, but most of the uncertainty now deals with the new and growing outbreaks in other countries on different continents, which has grounded international air travel, and suspended both athlete training activities and critical pre-Games Olympic qualification events.
However, it has been made clear by the IOC that cancellation is none of the scenarios.
In a separate open letter to Olympic athletes around the globe today, IOC president Thomas Bach eliminated one alternative direction the Tokyo Games could take.
“So, like you, we are in a dilemma: Cancellation of the Olympic Games would destroy the Olympic dream of 11,000 athletes from all 206 National Olympic Committees, from the IOC Refugee Olympic Team, most likely for the Paralympic athletes, and for all the people who are supporting you as coaches, doctors, officials, training partners, friends and family,” wrote Bach, who himself is an Olympian and won the team gold medal for fencing at Montreal 1976.
As a former athlete for West Germany, he was unable to compete at the Moscow 1980 Games due to the US-led, Cold War-era boycott, and states that he is committed to not depriving athletes of their life-long pursuit.
“Cancellation would not solve any problem and would help nobody. Therefore it is not on our agenda,” he continued. “As a fellow Olympian, I hope that you can understand our challenge, and accept and support our principles which are to safeguard your, your families’ and everyone’s health, and to keep your Olympic dream alive.”
“Even though, in very different circumstances and for very different reasons, I had an experience of uncertainty as an athlete in the lead-up to the Olympic Games Moscow 1980. We were uncertain whether the Games would take place and whether we would be allowed to participate. Quite frankly, I would have preferred it if the decision-makers then would have taken more time to decide on a more sound basis of information.”
With growing opposition to continuing the Games as planned, the IOC and its joint task force — comprised of the World Health Organization, City of Tokyo, Government of Japan, and TOCOG — will use the next four weeks to decide on the best option forward. This would potentially establish a decision on the future of Tokyo 2020 in mid or late-April.
Amidst the uncertainty, the Olympic Torch Relay is in the process of navigating its way throughout Japan. The Olympic Flame for the Tokyo Games was ignited in Ancient Olympia, Greece on March 12.
“This uncertainty stems from the fact that, at this moment, nobody can really make fully reliable statements about the duration of this fight against the virus,” added Bach.
“This is true for sport, science, the media, politics, and all of society. Therefore also the IOC can unfortunately not answer all your questions. This is why we are relying on the advice of a Task Force including the WHO.”
The modern Olympics, beginning with 1896 Athens, have only been cancelled during the World Wars, resulting in the cancellation of the Games of 1916, 1940, and 1944. The Cold War also led to the boycotts of the 1976, 1980, and 1984 Games.
Over 600,000 international visitors were expected to visit the Tokyo region for the 2020 Games.
In the seven-year lead-up to the Games, the Japanese government and TOCOG have been widely publicly referring Tokyo 2020 as the “Recovery Olympics” from the devastating earthquake, tsunami, and Fukushima nuclear meltdown disaster of 2011.
The 2020 Games were meant to showcase and boost Japan’s economy in the same way as the Tokyo 1964 Summer Olympics, which were held 19 years after the Second World War.
Japan spent an estimated USD $26 billion on direct and indirect projects related to the staging of the upcoming Olympics.