IOC admits postponing Olympics a realistic scenario, sets deadline after emergency coronavirus meeting

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach attends a press conference closing an Olympic session in Lausanne on January 10, 2020. (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI / AFP) (Photo by FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP via Getty Images)
International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach. (Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty Images)

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach has finally admitted that postponing the 2020 Olympics due to the coronavirus pandemic is a realistic possibility – and that organizers have four weeks to make a decision.

After a reported emergency IOC meeting on Sunday, amid growing pressure from national Olympic committees and sports federations, Bach published a letter to athletes, in which he acknowledged safety and health concerns, detailed the logistical difficulties of postponing the Games, but said the IOC was considering doing just that.

"It is in light of the worldwide deteriorating situation, and in the spirit of our shared commitment to the Olympic Games, that the IOC Executive Board has today initiated the next step in our scenarios,” Bach wrote.

He later reassured athletes and the public that cancellation “is not on our agenda.” Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe, speaking in parliament on Monday morning, echoed that message. But he, too, for the first time, indicated postponement was on the table.

Under-pressure IOC shifts coronavirus stance

The letter, and Abe’s words, represent a significant shift in the IOC’s public messaging surrounding COVID-19 and its potential impact on the 2020 Olympics. For weeks, organizers had been adamant the Games would be unaffected. On March 3, IOC spokesman Mark Adams told reporters: “We've made a decision. And the decision is that the Games go ahead.” Just last week, Japan’s Olympic minister said: “The IOC and the organizing committee are not considering cancellation or a postponement – absolutely not at all.” And even this past Tuesday, the IOC said it remained “fully committed” to holding the Games in 2020.

Then athletes began to speak up. A member of Japan’s Olympic committee called for postponement. On Friday, USA Swimming, perhaps the most powerful national governing body in the world, called for postponement, and the following morning, USA Track & Field followed suit. Other national Olympic committees and sports leaders joined the chorus. World Athletic president Sebastian Coe wrote to Bach to outline why holding the Olympics in July 2020 would be “neither feasible nor desirable.”

And on Sunday, Lawrence Gostin, a director at the World Health Organization, which is advising the IOC, said “it would be utterly irresponsible to hold the Olympics” this summer. “If [the] Olympics [are] inconceivable now could we confidently predict it'd be safe by 24 July?” he wrote in a follow-up tweet. “Never.”

So on Sunday, the IOC’s tone finally changed. “Many of you cannot prepare and train in the way you are used to, or even not at all because of the anti-COVID-19 measures in your country,” Bach acknowledged in the letter. “What we all share, however, is tremendous uncertainty. This uncertainty rocks our nerves and raises or strengthens doubts about a positive future; it destroys hope. Some even have to fear for their very existence.”

Bach reiterated the IOC’s stance “that a final decision about the date of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 now would still be premature.” But he seemed to set a four-week deadline for that decision.

“Together with all the stakeholders, we have started detailed discussions today to complete our assessment of the rapid development of the worldwide health situation and its impact on the Olympic Games, including a scenario of postponement,” he wrote. “We are working very hard, and we are confident that we will have finalized these discussions within the next four weeks."

To many, though, four weeks is too long. “We urge rapid decision-making for the sake of the athletes who still face significant uncertainty," Sir Hugh Robertson, the chairman of the British Olympic Association, said in response to Bach’s letter. "Restrictions have removed the ability of athletes to compete on a level playing field and it simply does not seem appropriate to continue towards the Olympic Games in the current environment.”

IOC details difficulties of postponement

Bach also acknowledged, for the first time, the many hurdles associated with postponing the Olympics – which are likely among the many reasons the IOC has taken so long to publicly consider the scenario.

He wrote:

Contrary to other sports events, to postpone the Olympic Games is an extremely complex challenge. Just to give you some examples:

A number of critical venues needed for the Games could potentially not be available anymore. The situations with millions of nights already booked in hotels is extremely difficult to handle, and the international sports calendar for at least 33 Olympic sports would have to be adapted. These are just a few of many, many more challenges.

Therefore, further the study of different scenarios, it would need the full commitment and cooperation of the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee and the Japanese authorities, and of all the International Federations (IFs) and National Olympic Committees (NOCs) and all stakeholders of the Olympic Games.

Postponement would also likely cost various stakeholders hundreds of millions of dollars. No entity has more to lose than the Japanese government, which has committed some $25 billion to the Games. (Bach’s Sunday letter, conveniently, was released around 3 a.m. Tokyo time.) But many others would stand to lose money as well.

“It would be a gigantic logistical nightmare,” sports economist and Olympics expert Victor Matheson told Yahoo Sports last month. “But it would certainly be better than spending $25 billion in preparation for an event that doesn’t happen at all.”

When would the Olympics be postponed to?

Another question for 2020 Olympic organizers to answer: If not this summer, when?

There are, it seems, only two realistic answers. Postponement to, say, October of 2020 is likely off the table, for two reasons:

  1. It’s unclear if the coronavirus pandemic will be under control by October.

  2. Broadcast partners – namely NBC – wouldn’t want their tentpole event clashing with the NFL, MLB playoffs, and European soccer.

The July-August window in 2021 would appear to be the best bet. (The same window in 2022 would be the second-best.) It would require a re-working of the Olympics host city contract, in which Tokyo committed to hosting the Games in 2020. It would also, as Bach mentioned, require the rescheduling or cancellation of countless other events, from world championships in swimming and track and field, to non-sports conferences and conventions slated for the Olympic venues.

But World Athletics, the international track and field federation, has already released a statement saying it “welcomes discussions with the IOC to postpone the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games and wrote to the IOC earlier today to relay this feedback from its Area Presidents, Council and athletes. We stand ready to work with the IOC and all sport on an alternative date.” Other sports organizations have echoed that willingness to cooperate.

“One-year postponement would bring enormous problems and costs,” Rio 2016 organizing committee CEO Sidney Levy told Yahoo Sports in February: “It is feasible.”

The IOC has given itself four weeks to figure out the logistics.

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