Common sense prevailed in the end.
The unprecedented decision to postpone the Tokyo Olympics for one year was the only possible choice for the IOC, the Japanese government and local organizers.
In the face of an accelerating global coronavirus pandemic forcing lockdowns of cities and countries across the world, the prospect of forging ahead this summer with the biggest sporting event on earth became unthinkable.
While the IOC announced Sunday that it would need a four-week window to consider postponement, events moved swiftly and officials decided there was no more time to wait.
Two days later, IOC President Thomas Bach and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke by phone and agreed to the first Olympic postponement in the 124-year history of the modern Games. (The Olympics of 1916, 1940 and 1944 were canceled outright during the world wars).
Tuesday’s momentous decision to move the Games to 2021 came amid growing appeals from athletes, sports federations and national Olympic committees for the Games to be rescheduled. It also followed close consultations with the World Health Organization.
Any hope of opening the Games as scheduled on July 24 evaporated as the Covid-19 crisis escalated.
“The IOC was always very much in lockstep with the WHO and in regular contact with them,’’ senior Canadian IOC member Dick Pound said. “I think everybody ended up being a little surprised at the steepening of the curve.”
“It becomes important for organizations like the IOC to act quickly and I think they did,’’ added Pound, who was not part of the decision-making process on the postponement.
IOC doyen Richard Pound.(ATR)
“As a responsible organization, you can’t send athletes and teams into a situation where they are at a high risk personally and also at risk of adding to the pandemic.”
Such would have been the risk of having 11,000 athletes from more than 200 countries living in the Olympic Village, sharing rooms, eating side by side in the dining hall, traveling together on the same buses and competing in packed stadiums in front of thousands of spectators.
Not to mention an expected influx of 20,000 media personnel from around the world and potentially hundreds of thousands of international visitors, along with 80,000 Japanese volunteers.
“It was clear from Sunday’s IOC statement that postponement was coming,” Pound said. “Countries under lockdown were screaming for this. The virus is just arriving in Africa. The numbers started to rise. At that point, when you don’t want to cancel, postponement is the only viable option.”
“In historical terms, I think this will be looked upon as a responsible response by the Olympic movement,” said Pound, the IOC’s longest-serving member. “I thought they did the right thing. Let’s not make a decision too soon. Let’s make sure whatever decision we made is supported by the public health authorities.”
The extraordinary decision will bring mixed emotions to those who are the heart and soul of the Games -- the athletes.
Many have trained for years to peak in time for the Olympics in July and August of 2020. For some, this may have been their best, their only or their last chance for Olympic glory. Some will be able to adjust and make it back next year. A new generation of athletes will also come through.
Postponement also brings a sense of relief for the athletes who have been pushing for a postponement, or at least a definitive decision. Athletes around the world have been in limbo, unable to train due to lockdowns, shuttered facilities and travel restrictions.
Bach is a former Olympic athlete -- a gold medallist in fencing in 1976 -- and he surely would have heard the athlete voices.
“We are confident that today’s decision by the IOC is fully supported by the athlete community,’’ the IOC athletes’ commission said in a statement. “Look after your health, as well as the health of your family and continue to be a role model to your community.”
In some ways, the decision to postpone was the simple one. Now comes the hard part: tackling the financial, logistical and sporting challenges to reschedule the event in 2021.
“There are a lot of pieces of a huge and very difficult jigsaw puzzle,” Bach said.
First, the dates. The IOC and Japan said they agreed that the Games would be rescheduled “to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021.”
It would seem logical to move to the same period of July 24-Aug. 9, which will be July 23-Aug. 8 in 2021.That will mean adjusting the busy 2021 summer sports calendar, which includes world championships for the two biggest Olympic sports – track & field and swimming.
The World Aquatics Championships are set for July 16-Aug. 1 in Fukuoka, Japan, while the World Athletics Championships are scheduled Aug. 6-15 in Eugene, Oregon.
Both FINA and the IAAF issued statements welcoming the Olympic postponement and saying they were ready to consider moving the dates of their 2021 championships. The IAAF said Eugene organizers were open to moving the athletics event to 2022.
It is in the interest of both federations to be flexible. Both sports benefit as much, if not more, from the exposure of the Olympic Games than of their own championships.
Theoretically, the Games could also take place earlier in 2021, say in the spring months. Again, this would throw up various conflicts with other sports. The European soccer leagues would be in full swing, and the NBA would be in mid-season, presumably keeping its stars from competing in the Games.
Then there is the question of the venues. Many of the facilities are leased by the city, so contracts would have to be amended or renegotiated for the Olympics next year.
What will happen with the Olympic Village, which was to be converted into condominiums after the Games this summer? Some of the units have already been sold.
Will the conference center serving as the hub for the massive media contingent be available for the same period in 2021?
And the hotel rooms that have been reserved and millions of tickets that have been bought? Will they be refunded? What about the flights that have been booked by fans around the world?
The stakes are also high for the TV networks, especially U.S. rights holder
NBC, which said earlier this month that it had secured a record $1.25 billion in Olympic ad sales for this year’s Games and sold 90 percent of its inventory. NBC paid $4.38 billion in 2011 for rights through 2020 and agreed in 2012 to a deal worth $7.75 billion to extend the rights through 2032.
“As far as the networks are concerned, the postponement defers their revenues and off-sets expenses by a year or so,” said Pound, the IOC’s former lead TV rights negotiator. “It’s not an all-or-nothing proposition.”
As daunting as the issues may seem for moving the Olympics to next year, all parties will surely find ways to make it work.
“It’s all solvable,’’ Pound said.
The 2020 Olympics, awarded to Tokyo seven years ago, had been billed as the “Recovery Games,’’ marking Japan’s revival from the devastating earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown of 2011.
Now, the Games of 2021 may symbolize something else entirely – triumph of the Olympic spirit over an invisible virus that swept the globe and upended daily life.
Reported by Stephen Wilson.
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