Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, has defended the decision to move the 2020 Olympic marathons and race walks 500 miles north from Tokyo to Sapporo, and accused those athletes criticising the change of holding selfish motives.
The IOC announced last month that the events would switch location in order to mitigate against the summer heat in the Japanese capital, which can reach more than 40 degrees. Local organisers were unhappy with the decision to move the races, which had originally been scheduled late at night in Tokyo.
The decision was influenced by the chaos of the recent World Championships in Doha, where the women’s marathon saw 28 of the 68 starters fail to reach the finish as some athletes collapsed and required medical treatment by the side of the course.
Canada’s leading race walker Evan Dunfee, who won bronze at the World Championships in Doha, accused the IOC of lacking empathy for the athletes and being driven only by the will to preserve its own reputation. “The IOC saw the narrative the media [in Doha] was pushing and got scared,” Dunfee tweeted. “They made a decision to try and protect their brand and avoid negative PR (they don’t care about athlete welfare). This decision was made without consultation with any stake holders (athletes, IAAF, Tokyo, Sapporo).”
Speaking on Monday in London at the unveiling of the IOC’s new £385m partnership with Airbnb, Bach disputed the claim that there was not enough consultation with athletes before the decision was taken, and claimed that those complaining were only doing so because they felt they had more chance of success in Tokyo’s stifling heat.
“The majority of the athletes were very much convinced because they made their experience before of not being able to complete the run because of the heat conditions,” said Bach. “There are one or two voices of athletes who think they would be better prepared for races in heat than the others and wanted to benefit from this, but the responsibility of the IOC is to take into account the health of all athletes so as many as possible can complete the race.
“There have been consultations before, despite all the rumours going on, so we are really pleased with this decision because it is in the interest of the athletes and in the end the overall Olympic Games.”
Other events endurance events like the triathlon will remain in Tokyo, which Bach said was the result of expert evidence. “The decision was based on scientific advice from a working group which was established last year, which is addressing these challenges. They clearly told us that the most exposed events would be the marathon and race walk.”
Bach was also asked whether he felt Russian athletes should compete at Tokyo. Russia could be banned from the 2020 Games after Wada discovered positive drug tests had been deleted from official records.
“That’s in the hands of Wada right now,” said Bach. “The sanction will be finally pronounced by Cas [Court of Arbitration for Sport], so it’s not in the hands of the IOC. Our principal concern is that the guilty ones must be punished as hard as possible, and the innocent ones must be protected.”