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Canada and Australia signal Tokyo 2020 withdrawal as IOC sets deadline

People watch Olympic flame during 'Flame Of Recovery' tour on March 22, 2020 in Miyako, Japan. (Photo by The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images)

Canada and Australia have signalled their withdrawal from the Tokyo 2020 Olympics, as pressure mounts on the International Olympic Committee to postpone the Games.

Japanese president Shinzo Abe has also, for the first time, talked about the possibility of postponing the Olympics.

Statements by the Canadian and Australian Olympic committees today followed one by the IOC on Sunday that it was looking at alternatives to hosting the Games this year.

The Canadian Olympic Committee said today it will not send its athletes to an Olympics this year. The organisation said: “While we recognise the inherent complexities around a postponement, nothing is more important than the health and safety of our athletes and the world community. This is not solely about athlete health – it is about public health.”

The Australian Olympic Committee has told its athletes to prepare for the Olympics to be held in 2021. The committee said: “Australian athletes should prepare for a Tokyo Olympic Games in the northern summer of 2021, following the IOC’s announcement of a potential postponement of this year’s Games and changes in public health landscape in Australia and across the globe.

“The AOC believes our athletes now need to prioritise their own health and of those around them, and to be able to return to the families, in discussion with their National Federations.

“The AOC held an Executive Board meeting via teleconference this morning and unanimously agreed that an Australian Team could not be assembled in the changing circumstances at home and abroad.”

Kyodo News and Reuters reported that prime minister Abe, who has been one of the staunchest defenders of holding Tokyo 2020 as scheduled, told a parliamentary session today: “If it is difficult to hold the games in such a way, we have to decide to postpone them, giving top priority to (the health of the) athletes…Although the IOC will make a final decision (on the matter), we are of the same view that cancellation is not an option.”

On Sunday, the International Olympic Committee said it is beginning talks about alternatives to hosting the Tokyo 2020 Olympics as scheduled, due to the coronavirus outbreak. It said the process would last four weeks and that cancelling the event is “not on the agenda”.

Reuters had earlier reported that the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee had started drafting alternatives to hosting the Games this summer. The news service quoted a source close to the OC saying they were looking at different postponement timeframes, and the cost estimates for each. Postponements of one or two years are among those under consideration, as are scaling back the Games and holding them without spectators.

One Reuters source warned that the later the decision is taken, the greater the cancellation cost. The news agency also reported that Japanese sponsors have privately expressed concern and are discussing internally what to do. Japan Airlines discussed on a recent internal conference call that there was an 80-per-cent chance the Olympics would not go ahead as scheduled.

The IOC had until yesterday maintained that postponing Tokyo 2020 was not being considered. But opposition to the stance built over the weekend, with influential voices speaking out to back postponement, including World Athletics, USA Track and Field, Brazil’s Olympic Committee, and athlete representative body Global Athlete.

In a statement yesterday, the IOC said: “To safeguard the health of all involved and to contribute to the containment of COVID-19, the executive board of the international Olympic Committee today announced that that the IOC will step up its scenario-planning for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.

“These scenarios relate to modifying existing operational plans for the Games to go ahead on 24 July 2020, and also for changes to the start date of the Games. This 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.”

The IOC said the increasing numbers of new cases of the disease had led to the change in approach. It said venues for the Olympics may not be available any more. It added: “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.”

The talks about alternative plans for the Game will initially involve the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee, Japanese authorities and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

Letter to athletes

IOC president Thomas Bach published a letter to athletes explaining the organisation’s thinking. He said the IOC had made it a “leading principle to safeguard the health of everyone involved, and to contribute to containing the virus”. He said it was a period of “tremendous uncertainty”, and the IOC could not answer all athletes’ questions, but would continue to rely on the advice of its task force on the matter, that includes the World Health Organisation.

Bach said the IOC’s reluctance to change plans for the Games stemmed partly from a belief that, “As successful athletes, you know that we should never give up, even if the chance to succeed appears to be very small”. He recalled his experience of uncertainty about an Olympics taking place in the lead-up to Moscow 1980 and said: “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”.

Bach admitted that the situation would be unsatisfactory to many athletes, but asked them to understand his organisation’s challenge. He said: “I wish, and we all are working for this, that the hope of so many athletes, NOCs and IFs from all five continents have expressed 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.”

The International Paralympic Committee released a statement in support of the IOC’s stance. IPC president Andrew Parsons said: “The next four weeks will provide time to see if the global health situation improves, while giving a window of opportunity to look into different scenarios should the dates of the Games need to be changed.”

The British Olympic Association and the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee guardedly welcomed the IOC’s move in separate statements, but both said a quick decision on whether the Games goes ahead this year must be taken to remove lingering uncertainty.

USA Today reported that three-quarters of the 300 US athletes that took part in a meeting with American Olympic officials at the weekend had supported delaying the Games.

Agence France-Presse reported that the IOC has distributed to NOCs a questionnaire about the impact of the epidemic on athlete preparation. The questions cover possible forced alterations and relocations of training camps, among other measures.

Flame arrives

Japan Today reported that a crowd of more than 50,000 gathered to see the Olympic flame displayed at Sendai station in Miyaji Prefecture over the weekend.

The flame arrived in Japan from Greece on Friday, greeted by two of Japan’s most famous Olympians – three-time wrestling gold medal winner Saori Yoshida and three-time judo gold medal winner Tadahiro Nomura.

Japan Today reported that getting the flame to Japan was a “small victory” for the IOC and Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee. Whether the Olympics takes place or not, the news service said, the flame may serve as a symbol and rallying point for the Japanese public.

Public-service broadcaster NHK spoke to one 70-year-old woman who said: “I queued for three hours but watching the Olympic flame was greatly encouraging.”

The nationwide torch relay begins on March 26, starting from the J-Village sports complex in Fukushima, that was used by workers tackling the 2011 nuclear disaster in the town.