The International Olympic Committee will apparently bow to the inevitable soon, but it has not yet confirmed that the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo are destined to be postponed.
When that occurs, long after every major sports league’s season and sporting event have been either delayed or canceled, the Olympics will be the latest victim of the novel coronavirus pandemic that has infected 350,000 people worldwide and led to more than 15,000 deaths.
For the time being, the assumption is that the Games of the XXXII Olympiad will be tentatively pushed back to 2021, although there is no indication the virus and the COVID-19 disease it causes is near containment.
While an official announcement is still forthcoming, longtime and respected IOC member Dick Pound of Canada told USA Today that the Games would not begin on July 24. Late Monday evening, the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee added its voice to the chorus calling for postponement.
The idea that the world’s elite athletes could be brought together in a time of global isolation has become increasingly unreasonable, to the point that even the IOC, famously stubborn regarding its brand, will apparently give in to reality.
The most recent Summer Games, held in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, hosted 11,000 athletes from more than 200 nations, and the Paralympic Games that followed hosted another 4,500 athletes. More than 500,000 people traveled to attend the competitions. Similar numbers were projected for Tokyo.
Beyond the actual gathering of the athletes for the July 24 Opening Ceremony in the new National Stadium, the mere act of training and preparing for the Olympics is increasingly impossible for the competitors and their national organizations. Players in team sports are obviously precluded from gathering, and those in individual sports are largely unable to use their training facilities.
IOC president Thomas Bach said on Sunday, in an open letter to potential Olympic athletes, that a decision would be made within four weeks.
“I also know that this rational approach may not be in line with the emotions many of you have to go through,” Bach said.
Olympic committees around the world disagreed with Bach’s definition of “rational,” however. Canada and Australia both announced on Sunday they would not field a delegation for Tokyo this year.
Sebastian Coe, the chairman of the 2012 London Olympics and a member of the Olympic Games Coordinating Commission, sent a two-page letter to Bach over the weekend stating that holding the Tokyo Games on schedule was neither “feasible nor desirable.” Coe, a four-time medalist as a middle-distance runner, is royalty in the Olympic sphere, and his break with the IOC was likely a deciding factor.
In the United States, USA Track and Field, USA Swimming and USA Gymnastics, three of the most influential national governing bodies, called for a postponement as well, citing athlete safety as the most obvious and compelling reason.
On Monday morning, Japan prime minister Shinzo Abe said if the Games could not be held completely, a postponement was “unavoidable.” The host country had until then presented a unified front regarding going forward.
The torch bearing the Olympic flame was transported Friday from Greece to Japan on an airplane emblazoned, “Tokyo 2020 Go.” The symbolic torch relay across the country to Tokyo was scheduled to begin Thursday.
“It will light people’s way,” said Mori Yoshiro, president of the Tokyo organizing committee.
Instead, the flame will likely be remembered as a flicker in the darkness of the COVID-19 pandemic. Long after all other sporting events had been postponed, the dream of holding the Olympic Games in Toyko from July 24-Aug. 9 will be extinguished.
The postponement of the Games would be the first interruption in the Olympic schedule since the Summer and Winter Games were not held in 1940 and 1944. The 1916 Summer Games were also canceled, due to World War I. The modern Olympics began in 1896, with a separate Winter Games program added in 1924.
It has become apparent in recent days that the IOC’s delay in announcing a postponement is largely due to figuring out the economic aspects of the decision. That athletes around the world continue to train as well as possible and put themselves in jeopardy to do so, does not reflect well on Bach or his organization.
The contract between the IOC and the Tokyo organizing committee contains “breach of contract” language in the event that one side or the other pulls out of the agreement for 2020. Sorting out the means to make the postponement a mutual decision at least partially has led to the halting response.
The Japanese budget for the 2020 Games is officially set at $12.6 billion (U.S.), but various external accounting indicates the cost could be twice as high. How the organizing committee will fund the maintenance of the Olympic venues for an additional year is going to be a major concern.
It is a concern that pales, however, alongside the current pandemic, a worldwide crisis that would only be made worse by keeping the Olympics on schedule.
When the official announcement is made by the IOC and officials in Japan, it will be made with sadness, of course, but in this year of sadness, the Olympic decision is just one more teardrop in a deepening pool.