IOC president defends delay on postponing Olympics, seems to cite Trump in reasoning

The 2020 Olympics don’t yet have a start date. A decision on timing will be made “as soon as possible.” Holding them in the spring of 2021 hasn’t been ruled out. And what if, due to the coronavirus pandemic, it remains irresponsible to hold them in 2021?

“We want and we will organize a Games only in a safe environment for all the participants,” International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach said when asked whether further postponement or cancellation could be on the table.

Those were among the newsworthy items coming out of a teleconference with Bach on Wednesday, one day after the 2020 Games were postponed. The theme, however, was why it took so long to get to this point.

Do you have any regrets about your insistence that the Games were going to open on July 24 as planned? Bach was asked.

Do you regret being so adamant?

Any regrets about not mentioning the possibility of postponement sooner, given the concerns raised by athletes?

Have you considered resigning?

Those were all among the questions on the call. (The answer to that last one was a flat “no.”) It began with Bach detailing, in a careful 10-minute, 45-second answer, the process behind the postponement decision. He admitted to receiving “alarming information” in recent days about the state of the pandemic. He also, however, seemed to downplay the severity of global countermeasures in an effort to defend the IOC and Tokyo organizers amid criticism that the decision took far too long.

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach gestures as he speaks during an interview after the historic decision to postpone the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games due to the coronavirus pandemic, in Lausanne, Switzerland, on March 25, 2020. - Olympic chief Bach says "all options are on the table" over finding a new date to hold the postponed Tokyo Games. Tokyo 2020 became the first Olympics in peacetime to be postponed due to the coronavirus pandemic. Announcing the unprecedented decision on March 24, the International Olympic Committee gave no specific new date, saying only it would be "beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021". (Photo by Denis Balibouse / POOL / AFP) (Photo by DENIS BALIBOUSE/POOL/AFP via Getty Images)
International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach. (Denis Balibouse/AFP/Getty Images)

Bach cites Trump as he defends IOC’s process

More than 40 minutes into the call, in his search for retrospective reasoning, Bach even cited United States President Donald Trump, and Trump’s suggestion that the U.S. could end its shutdown by mid-April.

Bach was asked: “Did [the Japanese] not understand the severity of the situation? Even before the weekend, millions of people around the world are living in an unprecedented way. In the United States, all across Europe, people are inside their homes, well before the weekend. Why did it take until Sunday for you to open that little door [to postponement]? Surely you had started talking to them before that. Did they need convincing that this was a serious issue? Because that’s how it’s sounding.”

Bach responded: “Don’t forget, in the last couple of weeks, the measures of many governments, they were limited until middle of April, some the beginning of May. We could not see measures having been taken lasting until July. Maybe you’ve seen the latest declarations in the United States, from President Trump, about the prospect of middle of April, being able to lift many restrictions. So, there, we were in line with these developments. And we were in line with the advice of the World Health Organization.”

According to Bach’s narrative, the IOC’s stance changed once the WHO – which declared the COVID-19 outbreak a pandemic two weeks ago – changed its tune. Advice from WHO director general Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus on Monday, Bach indicated, accelerated the timeline. “This,” he said, “was such a crucial moment.”

Bach was then asked, given the “alarming information” he has received, and the bleak picture he had painted, what advice he would have for President Trump. He awkwardly deflected the question.

“We are not the World Health Organization,” he said. “And we are not in a position to give advice to any of the world leaders how to handle this challenge in his or her respective country.”

Bach’s explanation for postponing Games

It’s still very unclear when, exactly, the IOC and Tokyo organizers began considering postponement behind the scenes. Their public messaging didn’t invoke the possibility until Sunday.

Bach admitted that, “at the beginning of this crisis,” the IOC had “a clear focus on the developments in Japan. We had to evaluate whether Japan would be in a position to offer a safe environment for every participant of the Olympic Games. This focus then shifted more and more to the international world, because we could see, on one hand, the progress being made in Japan fighting the virus, and the efficiency of the measures being taken. But we could see then on the other side that the virus was spreading so rapidly that it became more and more a question whether the world could travel to Japan, and whether Japan could afford, in the spirit of containing the virus, to really invite the world.”

Bach said that, until recently, “Japan was very, very confident to go ahead. And then … Sunday, in the morning, we saw the figures, from Africa in particular.” The rising case toll, the widening scope, the further outbreaks to come around the globe.

That, Bach said, led him on Sunday to call an “emergency meeting of the IOC executive board with the aim to open a discussion with our Japanese hosts and partners and friends ... about the postponement of the Games.”

Then, after “a declaration from the World Health Organization, which was pretty alarming,” Bach said, he called the president of Tokyo’s organizing committee, who had been in touch with Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe. Bach said he was informed then that Japanese officials “were ready to enter into a discussion about the different scenarios, in particular about postponement.”

Then, Bach said, on Tuesday, on a scheduled call with Abe, the two agreed to the decision.

Other notes from IOC president Bach

Some more notes from the call with Bach, which included around 400 international journalists and lasted around 55 minutes:

  • Bach said the Tokyo organizing committee has formed a tasked force to address the “challenging questions” associated with rescheduling the Olympics. One first step will be a Thursday teleconference with all 33 international sports federations.

  • Bach, when asked by Yahoo Sports whether holding the Games before summer 2021 was an option: “The agreement is that we want to organize these Olympic Games at the latest in summer 2021. That means this task force can consider the broader picture. This is not restricted just to the summer months. All the options are on the table.”

  • Bach’s full answer on whether, if health experts advise that it’s still unsafe and irresponsible to hold the Olympics next summer, they could be postponed or even canceled: “We have established this principle, which we have always been following, which we will be following in the future, that we want and we will organize a Games only in a safe environment for all the participants.”

  • Bach seemed irked by the Canadian Olympic Committee’s Sunday announcement that it would not send athletes to an Olympics in 2020. “It is the right of every athlete to decide, if qualified, if he or she wants to participate in the Olympic Games,” he said. “I do not think that such a decision can be taken by a majority vote by anybody. We have to respect the rights of the athletes. A different athlete decides not to go to the Games, this is his good right.”

  • Bach said that “it’s a logical consequence” of postponement that sponsorship agreements expiring in 2020 will be extended through 2021.

  • Bach’s metaphor for the challenges of rescheduling: “This is like a huge jigsaw puzzle. And every piece has to fit. If you take out one piece, the whole puzzle is destroyed.”

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