(Source: The Wall Street Journal) – The International Olympic Committee on Sunday said it is considering postponing the Tokyo 2020 Games, bowing to the reality of the worsening coronavirus pandemic and growing pressure from athletes, sports federations and public health leaders to delay its multibillion-dollar centerpiece event.
The IOC has been criticized for taking a full-steam-ahead approach to the Games’ July 24 start date, failing to acknowledge the possibility of a delay despite a rising global death toll and the shutdown of many nations’ athletic-training facilities.
It changed course on Sunday by saying it would assess the world-wide health situation and consult with the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee, Japanese authorities and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government. The IOC didn’t detail possible postponement scenarios but said cancellation isn’t being considered.
And it signaled that a decision isn’t imminent, either, by saying it was confident it would complete the discussions within the next four weeks.
Whatever the outcome, moving the Games would be a complicated and disruptive event for a large number of constituencies. They include athletes whose training has been sidelined; broadcasters such as NBC, who pay huge sums for broadcasting rights; sponsors who make the Olympics a focal point of their marketing; and other sports organizations, who might find themselves competing with the IOC for new dates when the sports world one day moves toward playing games again.
The IOC’s move came on the heels of USA Swimming, USA Track & Field and others calling for the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee to use its influence with the IOC to postpone Tokyo 2020.
Public health officials also have begun speaking forcefully on the matter.
Lawrence Gostin, the director of the World Health Organization’s center on global health law, said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal on Sunday that the Games couldn’t go on in July and that he was making that argument strongly within the organization, which the IOC has said is its chief source of expertise.
“No one could say with any degree of confidence that the situation globally will be better,” Gostin said. “Even if you’re on the downturn in Asia and Japan, it would be on the upswing in many parts of the world. I could see the U.S. and Canada near peaking, and possibly in Mexico. I could see the curve of the pandemic on the way up in sub-Saharan Africa and the Middle East.
“Since this is a global event it would be the height of folly to consider going forward, and that’s if the borders opened, travel restrictions lifted and the airlines started flying.”
In its Sunday statement, the IOC said the “dramatic increase in cases and new outbreaks” led its executive board to conclude it needs to “take the next step in its scenario-planning.”
World Athletics, the international governing body of track and field, said it welcomed discussions about postponement. Han Xiao, chair of the USOPC’s Athletes’ Advisory Council, said the IOC’s acknowledgment that postponement is an option and its timeline to shape scenarios is “a step in the right direction. We’re looking forward to more information and continued transparency over the following four-week period.”
In the event of postponement, the debate will shift to just how long the IOC should wait to hold the Games safely.
Public health experts have mixed perspectives on the best new date for the Games. While some said the fall of 2020 could work, others, such as Gostin, worry about the legacy of the 1918 influenza pandemic, in which the deadliest period came after restrictions were lifted because cases had dropped.
Carlos Del Rio, head of the global-health department at Emory University and the chair of a panel convened by the National Collegiate Athletic Association to guide its decision-making, agreed that the threat of reversing the gains made on coronavirus transmission by then might necessitate postponing the Games for a full year.
“We are really in uncharted territory,” he said.
William Schaffner, a Vanderbilt University professor of preventive medicine who also served on that advisory panel, said that 2022, not 2021, would be preferable. By then, he said, there was a stronger likelihood that the Games could take place in a setting where a vaccine had been brought online and everyone attending had received it, he said.
The summer of 2022 might also give the Games a clearer runway—particularly since they won’t have to compete with the 2022 soccer World Cup in Qatar, which will be held in the winter.
Any postponement shorter than a year, meanwhile, could put the IOC squarely in a crush of rescheduled events this fall, plus the National Football League, playoff baseball, and European soccer—a scenario sure to be opposed by the Games’ major broadcast-rights holders around the world.
Beyond scheduling concerns, any delay is certain to scramble the plan for Tokyo 2020 sites after the Games. The main athletes’ village is slated to be sold as private accommodation after the Games, and thousands of Olympic volunteers and staff who assumed their work would be done by August 2020 would have to be reassembled or re-recruited.
Athletes, however, believe that a postponement is the only path to a seemingly normal Olympics from a competitive standpoint. Training schedules around the world have already been thrown into disarray. Global antidoping efforts have also been severely reduced due to a lack of events and out of concern for testers’ safety.
The decision to take four weeks to contemplate postponement does buy some time for the IOC to rally members around the idea as more data appears, something that board member Dick Pound advocated in an interview with The Wall Street Journal on Saturday.
“I think the IOC is pretty determined to hold the course until a direction appears,” Pound said. “You can imagine what the reaction would be if we got it wrong.”