Amid mounting pressure from athletes and national governing bodies, the International Olympic Committee is now considering whether to postpone the 2020 Tokyo Olympics — and it has set a deadline for its decision.
In a letter to athletes released Sunday, IOC president Thomas Bach wrote that the IOC has ruled out canceling the Games altogether but is now exploring alternative ways to stage the Tokyo Olympics — including postponement — due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
Bach indicated that the IOC is discussing the matter with key stakeholders and “we are confident” that a final decision will be made within the next four weeks.
“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,” Bach wrote in the letter. “We are working very hard, and we are confident that we will have finalized these discussions within the next four weeks.”
Sunday’s statement represents a significant shift in the IOC’s messaging on the Olympics, which are scheduled to begin July 24 in Tokyo. For months, the IOC and Bach have dismissed even the possibility of a postponement as mere speculation and declined to specify any contingency plans for the Games.
The IOC’s change in stance comes amid mounting pressure from across the Olympic movement to postpone the Games, most likely to 2021.
In recent days, national Olympic committees from Brazil and Norway, among others, have called for the Games to be postponed — as have USA Swimming and USA Track and Field, the two largest sport governing bodies within the Olympic movement in the U.S.
Bach reiterated that he belives it is “premature” to make a decision immediately, given the uncertainty surrounding the coronavirus, which has infected hundreds of thousands of people around the world.
He also acknowledged that postponing the Games “is an extremely complex challenge.”
“A number of critical venues needed for the Games could potentially not be available anymore,” Bach wrote. “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.”
Even if those logistical obstacles could be overcome, postponing the Games would still cause substantial ripple effects throughout the global sports community, both for the 11,000 athletes who were scheduled to compete and sports federations and leagues around the world.
It would also have significant financial implications for several major stakeholders, including the IOC and the Japanese government.
The Olympics have, to this point, only not gone forward as planned during periods of war. The Summer Games in 1916 were canceled during World War I, as were the Summer and Winter Games in both 1940 and 1944, due to World War II.
Boycotts also caused serious complications in 1976, 1980 and 1984. But in each case, the event itself persisted as scheduled.
Contact Tom Schad at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.