Japan’s prime minister and the head of the International Olympic Committee agreed to postpone the Tokyo 2020 Games by a year Tuesday in an extraordinary move, unprecedented in peacetime, as the world battles the coronavirus pandemic.
“I proposed to postpone for about a year and president Bach responded with 100 percent agreement,” Shinzo Abe told reporters referring to Thomas Bach, head of the IOC.
The move would be a devastating blow for the city of Tokyo, which had won widespread praise for its organisation, with venues finished well ahead of time and tickets massively oversubscribed.
The Olympics, which has experienced boycotts, terrorist attacks and protests, but has been held every four years since 1948, would be the highest-profile event affected by the virus that has killed thousands and closed sports competitions worldwide.
The IOC has come under increasing pressure in recent days to postpone the Games, scheduled to start on July 24, with 1.7 billion people across the planet in lockdown to prevent the further spread of COVID-19.
Training has become impossible for many athletes and exposes them to the risk of contracting or spreading the disease. Competitions and qualifiers have been scrapped, while international travel is severely limited.
On Sunday, the IOC had initially given itself a deadline of four weeks to come up with a proposal to postpone the Games, a Herculean task that touches on every aspect of Tokyo 2020 planning from venues to security to ticketing.
But after Canada and Australia withdrew their teams and the powerful US Olympic Committee and World Athletics also joined the chorus calling for a postponement, the writing was on the wall for the July start.
Tokyo was spending some $12.6 billion to host the Games, according to its latest budget, and experts believe a postponement could cost it some $6 billion in the short-term before recouping it when they eventually go ahead.
It will also be a bitter blow to sponsors and major broadcasters who rely on the four-yearly extravaganza for critical advertising revenue.
It is not the first time Tokyo has seen unscheduled changes to the Games — it was due to be the first Asian country to host the Olympics in 1940 before pulling out due to international pressure over its war with China.
‘Stubbornness and arrogance’
The IOC came under fire for taking so long to make its decision after other major events such as the European Football Championships already announced postponements.
British cyclist Callum Skinner had strongly criticised IOC president Thomas Bach, accusing him of placing his own interests first.
“Bach’s stubbornness and arrogance has spectacularly failed in this instance and he has weakened the Olympic movement,” Skinner wrote on Twitter.
“This isn’t the first time he has put his own motives above the athletes and the movement.”
But Tokyo 2020 organisers point to the unparalleled complexity — not to mention cost — of shifting the Games. It is not even clear venues will be available and tens of thousands of hotel rooms will need to be cancelled and rebooked.
“It is mind-bogglingly complex to make a sudden change after seven years of preparation for the biggest sporting event in the world,” Michael Payne, the IOC’s former head of marketing, told AFP.
Squeezing in the 16-day Games into what will already be a hugely crowded 2021 calendar is another major headache, with arguably the two biggest sports, swimming and athletics, due to hold their world championships that summer.
However, World Athletics has already said it was prepared to shift its world championships, scheduled for August 6-15 next year in Oregon, to accommodate a move in the Games.