The Tokyo 2020 Olympics is set to be postponed by up to two years, as the Japanese government and games organisers respond to worldwide coronavirus lockdowns and mounting pressure to delay the world’s biggest sporting event.
The IOC has given itself four weeks to agree the extent of a delay meaning a formal announcement may not come until next month, but on Sunday the International Olympic Committee gave its first indication that the postponement was likely. The IOC said that it would need the “full commitment and co-operation” of Japanese authorities, sports bodies, broadcasters and sponsors, and that “cancellation was not on the agenda”.
In recent days, under-fire IOC president Thomas Bach and Japanese ministers have been holding crisis talks about how to respond to the global pandemic, even while remaining adamant that the games would take place as planned this summer.
People familiar with the talks said the two sides had reached a “gentleman’s agreement” not to cancel the games and were now engaged in discussions about the length of a postponement.
They said the likely new date was the summer of 2021, although other options were under discussion, including the autumn of next year and even pushing the games to 2022.
Senior executives at several of the “gold” Japanese companies paying around $100m in sponsorship said that, in their understanding, discussions over postponement began in earnest in the first week of March — the same point at which Japan’s Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, abruptly called on local government to close the nation’s schools.
One executive at a large Japanese sponsor said that the four-week deadline to agree a delay sounded excessive, arguing it would extend the “uncertainty and pain” being caused to athletes around the world.
Tokyo organisers have been reluctant to forestall or cancel the games given the enormous expense that comes with the decision. The summer games project has cost Japan $25bn, according to some estimates.
In contrast, the IOC’s revenue in the four years that covered the Sochi 2014 winter games and the Rio de Janeiro 2016 summer games was $5.7bn from the sale of global broadcasting and sponsorship deals.
On Sunday, the IOC said a “final decision” on postponement was premature because the situation in Japan had improved, but added that the scale of coronavirus outbreaks in other countries was causing concern. It said it may not make a formal decision for another four weeks.
Last Friday, Japan said it had begun discussions that would make it one of the first countries in Asia to reopen schools, despite warnings from experts that it could experience an “explosive” increase in virus cases.
The IOC said a number of complex considerations would need to be solved to allow for a delay. Some of the competition venues might not be available. Millions of hotel nights have already been booked by visitors.
But the IOC has come under pressure to delay the games from athletes, sports federations and its own officials.
Hayley Wickenheiser, the former Canadian ice hockey player who represents athletes as an IOC member, said last week that continued insistence that Tokyo 2020 would go ahead as planned was “irresponsible”. Olympic pole vault champion Katerina Stefanidi has accused the IOC of leaving athletes “at risk” with its stance.
Sebastian Coe, president of World Athletics, the governing body of track and field, said on Saturday that athletes were struggling to train because of quarantine measures in many countries.
“If we lose the level playing field, then we lose the integrity of the competition,” he said. “Nobody wants this, least of all the athletes or the fans.”