Abe, Bach agree to delay Tokyo 2020 Games

The Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics will be delayed following an agreement reached early on March 24 between Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe and International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach.

Following fast-growing pressure for a postponement amid the still-growing Covid-19 pandemic, Abe and Bach in a conference call concluded the original schedule for the Games of July 24 to August 9 was no longer tenable.

The rescheduled Olympics will be held no later than the summer of 2021. But no further details on a new timing have been established yet.

“In the present circumstances and based on the information provided by the World Health Organization today, the IOC President and the Prime Minister of Japan have concluded that the Games of the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo must be rescheduled to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021, to safeguard the health of the athletes, everybody involved in the Olympic Games and the international community,” the IOC said in a joint statement with the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee.

The already-lit Olympic Flame will remain, and the full official name for the event will remain Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.

“The leaders agreed that the Olympic Games in Tokyo could stand as a beacon of hope to the world during these troubled times and that the Olympic flame could become the light at the end of the tunnel in which the world finds itself at present,” the IOC and Tokyo 2020 said.

The timing shift marks the first time a global health issue has disrupted the Olympics. Given the massive size and complexity of the Games, the move will cause an unprecedented array of logistical and political ramifications. But as the cases of Covid-19 continue to grow around the world, the choice was all but inevitable. The rest of the global sports industry, both on a professional and collegiate level, has already shut down.

“The unprecedented and unpredictable spread of the outbreak has seen the situation in the rest of the world deteriorating,” the IOC and Tokyo 2020 said.

Still, the decision represents a highly rapid turnabout from the IOC’s prior stance on rescheduling the Games due to Covid-19, when it initially sought to delay a decision as much as possible, and then said this past weekend a decision could come within four weeks.

But last night, the growing chorus to postpone added an influential American voice from the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee.

The organization cited its own internal polling of US Olympic hopefuls, finding that roughly two-thirds of athletes have already found their training severely impacted or altogether stopped because of the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic. 

In addition to many private training facilities, colleges, and universities now closed to Olympic athletes, US Olympic and Paralympic training centers in Lake Placid, New York, and Colorado Springs, Colorado, are also now closed.

As a result, the USOPC also advocated for a delay to the Games.

“It’s more clear than ever that the path toward postponement is the most promising, and we encourage the IOC to take all the needed steps to ensure the Games can be conducted under safe and fair conditions for all competitors,” said USOPC chair Suzanne Lyons and CEO Sarah Hirshland in a joint statement. 

The USOPC’s stance follows that of several of the US’s largest individual national governing bodies. USA Track and Field and USA Swimming over the weekend also called for a postponement, and those two groups have since been joined by USA Gymnastics, collectively representing three of the largest and prominent Olympic sports in the country.

The USOPC had comparatively come under some fire for not initially being as vocal in also pushing for a delay to the 2020 Games. And just three days ago, Lyons and Hirshland said it was “premature to make a final call on the date of the Games,” a stance that very soon would stand in sharp contrast from the growing set of NGB statements pushing for postponement. 

But the USOPC also said it was taking time to gather data from nearly 1,800 athletes on their current training conditions and overall sentiments regarding the upcoming Olympics. That data also showed that less than 10 per cent of respondents felt they could continue to train in their respective sports without any adverse impact due to the public health crisis.

“Our most important conclusion from this broad athlete response is that even if the current significant health concerns could be alleviated by late summer, the enormous disruptions to the training environment, doping controls, and qualification process can’t be overcome in a satisfactory manner,” Lyons and Hirshland said. 

Sixty-eight per cent of respondents to the USOPC survey also said they did not think the Tokyo Games could be fairly competed if it had continued as originally scheduled. 

Hirshland then on March 24 released an updated statement following the official decision to delay, saying, “my heart breaks for you, your fellow athletes around the world, our friends at Tokyo 2020, the people of Japan, and all who are impacted by this global pandemic.

“With this decision, the work of planning a new version of the Tokyo Games is now officially underway,” she said. “The excellence within Team USA is our resilience and how we overcome adversity. I have no doubt we will get through this together as a team, and all be better because of it.”

While the USOPC, or any individual NGB in the country, did not singularly sway what the IOC will ultimately do, the American voice still loomed very large. The US sends more athletes to the Games than any other nation, has hosted more Olympics than any other country, and is a major source of media and corporate sponsorship revenue for the entire Olympic movement. 

“We regret that there is no outcome that can solve all the concerns we face,” Lyons and Hirshland said. 

Canada and Australia said previously they would not send their athletes to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics had they remained as scheduled.

Prior to the IOC-Abe agreement on March 24, IOC board member Dick Pound said the day before that, in his opinion, a decision to delay had essentially already been made.

“On the basis of the information the IOC has, postponement has been decided,” Pound told USA Today. “The parameters going forward have not been determined, but the games are not going to start on July 24, that much I know.”

The Canadian official, a senior figure in IOC circles, said the Games will likely move to 2021, with details to be worked out over the next month. “It will come in stages,” Pound, who at 78 years old is the longest-serving IOC member, said. “We will postpone this and begin to deal with all the ramifications of moving this, which are immense.”

Pound last month estimated there is a three-month window to decide whether the 2020 Games will proceed as planned in Tokyo, indicating that a cancellation is more likely than a postponement should challenges provided by Covid-19 prove insurmountable. Tokyo 2020 is scheduled to run from July 24 to August 9, and with a number of other major sporting events either being postponed or cancelled, its status has lately been the subject of much debate.

Pound added to Reuters: “From reading IOC-speak in the communique, if you are going to cancel you simply cancel because there are no future plans. But if you are going to carry on with the original objective (to stage the Games) there is no reason to issue a statement because you have already done that over the past several weeks.

“Look at the Japan situation. You have the prime minister talking about postponement, so you then come to the P word, ‘postponement’, and the four-week delay is probably what you need to come up with a preliminary plan in favour of the postponement. What else is there? It is a general sort of language but that’s what you do if you are an international organization trying to leave yourself as much flexibility as you can,” he said.

Pound concluded: “There is a ton of things that have to be discussed and negotiated in something as complicated as the Olympics. This (Covid-19) is clearly not something that is going to be under control by June or July and probably not by the end of the year, so a one-year postponement looks like the best interim solution you can devise. No one wants to cancel the Games.”