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Coronavirus: Tokyo 2020 Olympics postponed until 2021

March 24, 2020

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), has confirmed that the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo have been postponed for a year after IOC President Thomas Bach agreed to a request from Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

London Olympische Ringe im Park von Stratford
Image: Getty Images/J. Setterfield

Speaking to reporters following a phone call with IOC President Thomas Bach on Tuesday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters that Bach had "agreed 100 percent" to postpone the Games.

"We asked President Bach to consider postponement of about one year to make it possible for athletes to play in the best condition, and to make the event a safe and secure one for spectators," Abe said, adding that the delayed Games will be a "testament to the defeat of the virus" once they do take place.

A joint statement released by the IOC and the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee read: "In the present circumstances and based on the information provided by the WHO 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 unprecedented development comes following mounting global pressure from National Olympic Committees, athletes’ associations and individual competitors as countries across the world went into lockdown in an attempt to slow the spread of the virus, which has now infected almost 400,000 people in almost 200 countries, and claimed over 16,500 lives.

Mounting pressure

With many high-profile sporting events already postponed or canceled, including football’s European Championships, the IOC had repeatedly insisted that the 32nd Olympiad in Tokyo would go ahead as planned from July 24 to August 9, despite Japan reporting more than 1,800 coronavirus infections and over 50 deaths.

On Monday, Canada became the first county to announce that it would not be sending any of its athletes to a 2020 Summer Games, Australia instructed its athletes to prepare for 2021 instead, and the United States Olympic Committee said that "the path toward postponement is the most promising."

Furthermore, in a poll conducted by the Athletics Association, over three quarters of the 4,000 athletes surveyed said they wanted the Games to be postponed, while 87 percent said their preparations had been adversely affected by the COVID-19 pandemic.

On Tuesday, following talks involving Abe, Bach, Tokyo Olympic organizing committee president Yoshiro Mori, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike and Olympics minister Seiko Hashimoto, the decision was finally made to delay the Games.

Coronavirus in Japan
The 2020 Summer Olympics have been postponed until 2021Image: picture-alliance/AP/J. Hong

Historic decision to have huge financial implications

The historic decision marks the first time in the 124-year modern history of the Olympics that the Games have been postponed, though Berlin 1916, Tokyo 1940 and London 1944 were canceled altogether due to the two World Wars. The Moscow 1980 and Los Angeles 1984 Games were also disrupted due to major Cold War boycotts.

The decision to postpone the Games is set to have far-reaching financial implications for key stakeholders with total estimates of the Games' costs ranging from a modest €11.1 billion ($12 billion) to a high of €23 billion ($25 billion) with the IOC's contribution valued at €740 million.

Tricky rearrangements will also have to be made with sponsors, television broadcasters, insurance companies, venues and some 80,000 volunteer staff, many of whom had been preparing to put their jobs on hold in order to donate their time.

"It is mind-bogglingly complex to make a sudden change after seven years of preparation for the biggest sporting event in the world," Michael Payne, the IOC's former head of marketing, told AFP.

On Tuesday, more than 1,000 people turned out in the northern Japanese city of Fukushima to see the Olympic Torch as it toured sites affected by the 2011 earthquake and tsunami – despite calls from organizers to remain at home. On Thursday, a scaled-down torch relay was due to begin with the Olympic flame carried in a lantern rather than by relay runners.

BdTD Griechenland Olympische Flamme für TokioGriechenland Entzündung der olymischen Flamme  für Tokio 2020
The Olympic Torch had already arrived in Japan, where it will now remain a little longerImage: Reuters/A. Konstantinidis

Mixed feelings for athletes

For the athletes looking forward to competing this summer, the decision to postpone the Games will prompt mixed feelings, with two-time Australian Olympic swimming champion Cate Campbell saying she was "heartbroken but not surprised."

"To be honest, I'm left reeling and feeling a little lost," she said. "But the goal posts haven't disappeared - just shifted. It's time to recalibrate and fire up for the next challenge."

The uncertainty over whether the Games would take place or not - which was only exacerbated by the IOC's announcement on Sunday that a final decision would be made "in the next four weeks" - had disrupted many athletes' training regimes, with many even forced to prepare indoors while in self-isolation. Now, there is widespread understanding for the decision to postpone.

"I compete in a little bike race, which is nothing compared to what is going on in the world right now," American Olympic BMX champion Connor Fields said, before the official announcement. "No sport is more important if it means more people might potentially die from this."

There was particular frustration for U.S. skateboarder and gold medal hopeful Nyjah Huston though, since his discipline was due to make its debut in Tokyo.

"When skating finally makes it in the Olympics then it gets postponed," the 25-year-old wrote on his Instagram account, after a delay had begun to look inevitable. "I was feeling ready too ... now I'm going to have to be a year older for this!"

mf/mds (SID, Reuters, dpa, AFP)