TOKYO/ATHENS (Reuters) - The Tokyo Olympics were postponed on Tuesday to 2021, the first such delay in the Games’ 124-year modern history, as the coronavirus crisis wrecked the world’s last sporting showpiece still standing this year.
Though a huge blow to Japan, which has invested $12 billion in the run-up, the decision was a relief to thousands of athletes fretting over training with the world heading into lockdown to fight a disease that has killed over 16,500 people.
Pressure had been building on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and its president, Thomas Bach, with some athletes and sporting bodies angry that a seemingly inevitable decision had taken so long.
After a call between Bach and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, both said the July 24-Aug. 9 Games would move to the summer of 2021 at the latest in a hoped-for celebration of triumph over the pandemic.
The Olympic flame, already lit at Olympia in Greece and taken to Japan for a now-cancelled torch relay, would stay in the host nation as a symbol of hope.
“Sport is not the most important thing right now, preserving human life is,” Bach said. “This Olympic flame will be the light at the end of this tunnel.”
Though it was the first Olympics postponement, the Games were canceled outright three times during the last century’s two world wars. Cold War boycotts also disrupted the Moscow and Los Angeles Olympics in 1980 and 1984.
The postponement leaves big question marks over the appeal and viability of the Olympic movement and its quadrennial Games.
Once unarguably the shiniest of jewels in the sporting landscape, a series of doping scandals and investigations into vote rigging have sullied the Olympics’ lustre.
The IOC leadership sought to root out institutional corruption after the Salt Lake City scandal in 1999, when the IOC expelled six members for taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in a vote-buying scandal.
Bach took over seven years ago to cauterize reputational wounds and modernise the multi-billion dollar operation further.
But his new, overhauled Games bidding process - designed to make the Olympics cheaper to host, more compact to stage, less wasteful all round - has failed to surface the scores of new potential host cities it was designed to deliver.
The Russian doping scandal that erupted in 2015 continues to erode the reputation of both the IOC and the Olympics.
Now a global virus threatens the very nature of the Olympics – people coming together to celebrate sport and competition – and the IOC is left fighting wars on several fronts.
Having ruled the IOC with an iron fist for seven years, with virtually no internal dissent, Bach - who is up for re-election next year - now faces the biggest crisis for the Games in at least a generation.
Athletes were disappointed but broadly endorsed the delay, given health risks and disruption to their training as gyms, stadia and swimming pools closed around the world.
“I compete in a little bike race, which is nothing compared to what is going on in the world right now,” said American Olympic BMX champion Connor Fields, who had been looking forward to his sport’s Games debut.
Many began focusing on next year’s competition.
“We’ll be more ready than ever in 2021 and wearing the maple leaf with more pride than I thought possible,” said Canadian Olympic wrestling champion Erica Wiebe, describing her feelings as: “Utter relief. Excitement. Uncertainty.”
The coronavirus outbreak has raged around the world this year, infecting nearly 380,000 people and wiping out the international sporting calendar.
Though 2021 looks crowded, as the sports world makes up for this year’s cancellations, World Athletics said it was willing to move its world championships, scheduled for Aug. 6-15, 2021 in Oregon, to make way for the Olympics.
It was not yet clear whether athletes who had already secured spots in Tokyo this summer - more than half of those due to compete - would need to qualify again. The Athletics Association said a poll of more than 4,000 track and field competitors showed 78% had wanted the Games delayed.
“My heart breaks for you,” U.S. Olympic and Paralympic CEO Sarah Hirshland said in a message to athletes.
“This summer was supposed to be a culmination of your hard work and life’s dream, but taking a step back from competition to care for our communities and each other is the right thing to do. Your moment will wait until we can gather again safely.”
Tuesday’s decision came 122 days before the planned opening ceremony at Japan’s newly built National Stadium, which was to usher in the 16-day event featuring 11,000 athletes from 206 nations and territories.
It is not the first time a Japanese Olympics has run into problems. Both the 1940 Summer and Winter Olympics were to be held in Japan but were canceled due to World War Two.
Despite their disappointment, not to mention the logistical headaches and financial losses to come, a poll indicated that about 70% of Japanese agreed with a delay.
The postponement was also a heavy blow to Japan’s prime minister, who has staked his legacy on the Games’ success and hoped it would bring a tourism and consumer boom. Such was his enthusiasm that he appeared as video game character Super Mario at the 2016 Olympics’ closing ceremony.
Putting off the Olympics is almost certain to push Japan’s economy, the world’s third largest, into recession.
IOC boss Bach is also in a tricky situation, after his repeated statements that the Games were on track brought a backlash from athletes and some national Olympic committees.
That, combined with disquiet over his support for Russian athletes to continue competing as neutrals despite their nation’s doping scandal, has threatened his grip on the IOC.
A change of culture is needed at the IOC is needed to make decision-making more inclusive, an association representing 85,000 athletes around the world said on Tuesday.
World Players Association executive director Brendan Schwab said that while he was happy with the decision to postpone, the delay in making it in the face of the spreading coronavirus pandemic made the IOC look almost naive.
U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) chief Travis Tygart warned that the postponement could open the door for convicted drug cheats to compete for medals, and the issue would need to be tackled.
(Interactive graphic tracking global spread of coronavirus: here)
Additional reporting by Ossian Shine and Reuters bureaux worldwide; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Nick Macfie, Giles Elgood and Mark Heinrich