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The Tokyo 2020 Olympics will now take place in 2021 as the COVID-19 crisis consumes the greatest of all sporting events. The decision is a historic one, but the only logical one, writes DW’s Michael Da Silva.
In the end, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) had little choice. The postponement of the Games was always going to be a last resort, but the global escalation of the coronavirus crisis, and the unknown nature of exactly when it will end or how bad it will get, left the IOC with no alternative.
Tokyo 2020 follows a long line of sporting events and competitions to have fallen to COVID-19. But unlike rolling league seasons such as the Bundesliga or NBA, or annual events like the French Open or Champions League final, the Olympic Games is a once-in-four-years showpiece event, and the pinnacle of the sporting calendar.
The Olympic Games have never been delayed or postponed before in peacetime and having to make that decision — however obvious on the grounds of global public health — would have made it no easier for IOC president Thomas Bach and his team. The writing had been on the wall.
Canada had already set a precedent by withdrawing its athletes from the Games on Monday, and that was only going to spark a domino effect of other competing nations around the world. Australia and the United States had nudged the IOC too, with the former hinting that its athletes should prepare for 2021 rather than 2020.
Despite their reluctance to make the call and the resistance shown by Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, the IOC have ultimately been shown to be leading on this issue. Yes, they were sluggish and the self-imposed April 13 deadline was unrealistic, but the main thing the IOC needed was the PR disaster of nation after nation withdrawing its athletes before an official decision was made. Such a scenario has been averted, and that will reflect well on Thomas Bach when the dust settles.
Rio de Janeiro welcomed over one million overseas visitors during the 2016 Games and the estimated figures for Tokyo 2020 were around 600,000. Even with the Games due to take place five months from now, such a vast movement of people in these times was simply too great a risk to take, even if travel restrictions are lifted before the event.
Besides the visitors, the IOC has a responsibility to the athletes, and there is no way of knowing where in the world the next flashpoint will be for the virus, or how that would impact the Games. The IOC are far better served monitoring the situation over the next couple of months, and planning to ensure that "Tokyo 2021" — although it will still officially be called Tokyo 2020 — can run without a hitch. And in keeping the name Tokyo 2020, the IOC can preserve the commercial deals that had contributed to these Olympics being a $30 billion event, the most expensive of all time.
Japan hasn’t had the best luck when it comes to the Olympics. In 1940, the Second World War forced the cancelation of both the summer and winter Games. That even led to the gaffe-prone deputy prime minister of Japan, Taro Aso, to claim there was a 40-year curse on the Olympics, referring to the 1980 Games in Moscow, which saw a boycott by many nations over the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
"It’s a problem that’s happened every 40 years – it’s the cursed Olympics, and that’s a fact," Aso said.
If Aso, who is also Japan’s finance minister, was somewhat wide of the mark with those comments, he was a little more accurate last week, when he said it would not make sense to hold the Games if other countries were unable to send their athletes. "As the Prime Minister said, it’s desirable to hold the Olympics in an environment where everyone feels safe and happy. But that’s not something Japan alone can decide," he said.
Although those comments came at a time when Abe was still exploring ways to avoid a postponement, the wind was only blowing in one direction. The Japanese government, like the IOC, had little choice but to agree to push the Games back a year. It was the only responsible course of action open to them and will allow the world to enjoy the Games without the specter of a global public health emergency hanging over it.
While the decision is a historic one, it’s also an obvious one.