Not even the Summer Olympics could withstand the force of
the coronavirus. After weeks of hedging, the IOC took the unprecedented step of
postponing the world’s biggest sporting event, a global extravaganza that’s
been cemented into the calendar for more than a century.
The Tokyo Games, slated for 11,000 athletes from more than
200 countries and at a reported cost of $28 billion, had been scheduled to
start July 24. They will now be pushed into 2021 on dates to be determined.
They will still be called the 2020 Olympics — a symbolic
gesture that the International Olympic Committee hopes will allow the games to “stand
as a beacon of hope,” as it stated in delivering the news Tuesday.
“I don’t think anybody was really prepared for this virus
happening,” said American sprinter Noah Lyles, who had been primed to be one of
the world’s breakout stars in Tokyo. “You look over the history of the Olympics
and see that it’s usually war that’s stopped the Olympics from happening.”
Only World War I and World War II have forced the Olympics
to be canceled; they were scrubbed in 1916, 1940 and 1944.
Now, a microscopic virus that is wreaking havoc with daily
life around the planet, to say nothing of its sports schedule, has accomplished
what no other virus (Zika in 2016), act of terrorism (the killing of Israelis
in Munich in 1972), boycott (1980 and 1984), threat of war (frequent) or actual
world war itself has managed to do: postpone the games and push them into an
For most people, the new coronavirus causes mild or moderate
symptoms, such as fever and cough that clear up in two to three weeks. For
some, especially older adults and people with existing health problems, it can
cause more severe illness, including pneumonia and death. The global pandemic
has sickened at least 420,000 people and killed more than 18,000 worldwide,
according to Johns Hopkins University.
Four-time Olympic hockey champion Hayley Wickenheiser, the
first IOC member to criticize the body’s long-held, dug-in refusal to change
the dates, called the postponement the “message athletes deserved to hear.”
“To all the athletes: take a breath, regroup, take care of
yourself and your families. Your time will come,” she wrote on Twitter.
When will that time be?
Nobody knows yet. It was a big part of the reason the IOC
refused to announce a postponement that was becoming more inevitable with each
passing day. Major sports organizations, including World Athletics and the
gymnastics, track and swimming federations in the United States, were calling
for a delay. So were major countries, including Canada, Brazil and Australia.
Even more compellingly, athletes were raising their voices.
They were speaking to the unfairness of not being able to train, fearful that a
trip out of the house could put them, or someone in their hometown, in
jeopardy. And what of their competitors, some living halfway around the world,
who might not have as many restrictions, and could be getting a leg up? There
were fears about the eroding anti-doping protocols caused by virus-related
restrictions and qualifying procedures that were disintegrating before their
“A bittersweet victory for athletes,” one group, Global
Athlete, called the decision. “On one hand, their Olympic dreams have been put
on hold. On the other hand, athletes have shown their power when they work
together as a collective.”
With IOC President Thomas Bach guiding the process, the
committee had said as recently as Sunday that it might take up to four weeks
for an announcement to come. It took two days.
But make no mistake, there are still weeks of difficult
Many of Tokyo’s arenas, stadiums and hotels are under
contract for an event held from July 24 to Aug. 9. Remaking those arrangements
is doable but will come at a cost. There are also considerations beyond the
top-line price tag. Among them: The $1 billion-plus the IOC was to receive from
broadcast partner NBC, the millions in smaller athlete endorsement contracts
that are now in limbo, the budgets of the individual national Olympic
committees, and the availability of the 80,000 volunteers who signed up to
“People are having a problem calling off weddings and
calling off little tournaments, so imagine with all the billions of dollars
that’s gone into this,” five-time Olympian Kerri Walsh Jennings told the
Associated Press. “They have a grieving process to go through. They have so
many moving parts to think about.”
There’s also the matter of the international sports
schedule. Nearly all 33 sports on the Olympic program have key events,
including world championships, on the docket for 2021. Hayward Field at the
University of Oregon was rebuilt and expanded at the cost of around $200
million to hold next year’s track and field world championships. Now that event
will likely be rescheduled.
“Of course, there’s going to be challenges,” said Paul
Doyle, an agent who represents about 50 Olympic athletes. “At the same time,
this is what had to happen.”
It came together during a meeting Tuesday among Bach,
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and a handful of other executives from the
IOC and Japan’s organizing committee.
Among the first casualties of the IOC’s impeccably curated
timeline was the torch relay. Organizers were planning to start the journey
through the host country in the northeast prefecture of Fukushima on Thursday,
albeit with no fans and no torchbearer. Instead, the flame will be stored and
displayed, with its next move to be determined later.
Just one of hundreds of difficult changes the IOC leaders
have to make in the upcoming weeks and months.
But the most difficult decision is behind them.
The unspoken irony in it all is that when Japan was awarded
the games in 2013, it came on the strength of a campaign in which it positioned
itself as “the safe pair of hands.” It was a time when the world was still
emerging from the Great Recession and the Olympic movement was especially
sensitive to the runaway expenses the Summer Games were incurring.
Japan, like every host before it, had trouble sticking to
the budget. Nevertheless, seven years later, and through no fault of its own —
in fact, Japan is one of the countries that appears to be avoiding the worst of
the coronavirus — Tokyo residents are watching their grand plans for 2020
So, onto 2021. As far as the Olympic world — and perhaps
the world at large — is concerned, it can’t get here soon enough.
Also contributing: Stephen Wade and Mari Yamaguchi in Tokyo,
Pat Graham in Denver, Paul Newberry in Atlanta, Graham Dunbar in Geneva, Janie
McCauley in San Francisco and Jimmy Golen in Boston.
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