For the first time in history, an Olympic Games will be postponed.
Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and the International Olympic Committee reached an agreement Tuesday to delay the Tokyo Games, which were slated to begin in July, for a year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“In the present circumstances and based on the information provided by the (World Health Organization) today, the IOC President and the Prime Minister of Japan have concluded that the Games of the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo must be rescheduled to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021, to safeguard the health of the athletes, everybody involved in the Olympic Games and the international community.”
Abe made the request for postponement amid mounting calls for the event to be delayed in light of the coronavirus pandemic, which caused more than 17,000 deaths worldwide since COVID-19 emerged late last year.
Sarah Hirshland, CEO of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, sent a letter to athlete Tuesday morning, saying her “heart breaks” for them, the people of Japan and athletes all over the world. She also promised that concerns surrounding the delay, such as qualifications and anti-doping standards, would be addressed soon.
“This summer was supposed to be a culmination of your hard work and life’s dream, but taking a step back from competition to care for our communities and each other is the right thing to do,” she wrote. “Your moment will wait until we can gather again safely.”
The USOPC, which supported giving the IOC more time to make a decision as recently as two days ago, finally joined the chorus of dissenters Monday night, releasing a statement that pushed for the Summer Games to pushed back.
The USOPC’s position reflects the growing unease within its own ranks, as federations representing its three marquee sports — swimming, gymnastics and track & field — all made public calls for the Games to be postponed while the national governing body was preaching patience.
Team USA officials did not say when they would prefer the event to take place, but several other countries — including Canada, Australia, Germany, Brazil and Slovenia — called for the Games to be held no earlier than 2021. Norway’s Olympic body said it did not want athletes going to Tokyo until the global health crisis is under control.
In a statement posted on its website, the USOPC said it made the decision after talking with its athletes, many of whom have seen their training facilities closed and critical competitions cancelled amid the COVID-19 outbreak. Even if the pandemic tapers to the point where it would be safe to hold the Games, athletes have questioned whether Olympic trials and other qualifying events — many of which have been scrapped — could be held under healthy, fair and properly trained conditions.
The USOPC announcement came hours after USA Gymnastics publicly pushed for the Games to be delayed. The federation said its position reflected a recent athlete survey in which 62 percent favor postponing the Tokyo Olympics, which were slated to start July 24.
USA Track & Field and USA Swimming called for a postponement last week, meaning the U.S. team’s top three medal-producing sports oppose efforts to hold the Games in light of the pandemic.
The uncertainty left Olympic hopefuls on edge, forcing them to find creative ways to train and keep their minds off a potentially devastating blow to long-held dreams. Many of them woke up to text messages from coaches and relatives Tuesday morning informing them of the delay.
For some, the announcement was welcomed news after weeks of disrupted training schedules and public health concerns. For others, it meant tough decisions about the future as they consider the financial, personal and physical cost of competing at a world-class level for another year.
But for nearly everyone, it brought much-desired clarity to the IOC’s wait-and-see approach.
“I was expecting this to happen. You could see it coming,” said Greco-Roman wrestler Joe Rau of Chicago, who had been favored to make the U.S. Olympic team this year. “I’m just relieved there is a decision and I can start figuring out what my next steps are going to be.”
The decision marks the first time the Olympics will be pushed back. Three other times, the Games were canceled because of World War I (1916) and World War II (1940 and 1944).
The unprecedented delay could have a devastating impact on Japan, with a host of economic and political consequences. Some estimates predict the postponement will cost an additional $5 billion for an event that is already projected to far exceed its $12.6 billion budget.
It’s unclear if the IOC will help ease financial burden, as critical details are still be worked out. Organizers still intend to call the event Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, regardless of when it actually occurs.
Beyond delaying the Games and keeping its original name, the only other decision made so far involves the Olympic flame, which arrived in Japan over the weekend. The flame, which was to be carried in a lantern during the traditional torch relay, will remain in Japan, officials said.
“The leaders agreed that the Olympic Games in Tokyo could stand as a beacon of hope to the world during these troubled times and that the Olympic flame could become the light at the end of the tunnel in which the world finds itself at present,” the statement read.
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