I.O.C. and Japan Agree to Postpone Tokyo Olympics


TOKYO — A week ago, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan and Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, were promoting the Summer Olympics in Tokyo as the balm the world needed to show victory over the coronavirus pandemic.

On Tuesday, the virus won out.

Bach and Abe bowed to a groundswell of resistance — from athletes, from sports federations, from national Olympic committees, from health experts — and formally postponed the Games, which had been scheduled to begin in late July, until 2021.

The decision brought both a sense of relief and impending chaos to international sports.

Abe broke the news after a phone call with Bach, when complaints that the I.O.C. was not moving quickly enough to adjust to the coronavirus pandemic became too loud to ignore.

The decision — which organizers in Japan resisted the longest, according to people involved with the process — became all but inevitable after the national Olympic committee in Canada announced on Sunday that it was withdrawing from the Games, and Australia’s committee told its athletes that it was not possible to train under the widespread restrictions in place to control the virus. Brazil and Germany, too, called for postponing the Games. And the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, after initially declining to take a stand, joined the fray Monday night, urging the I.O.C. to postpone.

As the virus spread, Bach said, athletes began voicing concerns about risking their health to continue training. It became clear that the pandemic was “rocking the nerves of the athletes, and it’s also not a situation we have ever been in,” he said.

Bach said that finalizing the details of a new schedule and negotiating adjustments in the global sports calendar with leaders of international federations, who were caught off guard by the speed of the decision, would take time.

“There are a lot of pieces of a huge and very difficult jigsaw puzzle,” he said.

Yoshiro Mori, the president of the Tokyo organizing committee, said that the scope and the dates of the Games in 2021 were uncertain, but that it was clear that they could not be held anytime in 2020.

“I am disappointed,” Mori said. “But to be on course with a certain direction is a sigh of relief.”

The postponement could result in adjusting the dates to avoid the hottest weeks of the summer in Tokyo, a concern Olympic organizers faced before the pandemic.

The I.O.C. considered other alternatives, like holding the Games without fans in arenas or delays of varying lengths — from just a few months to all the way to 2022. The committee’s leaders never seriously considered fully canceling the Games or taking them away from Tokyo, but executives with the local organizing committee were caught by surprise at how quickly things had changed from Sunday’s declaration by the I.O.C. that it would make a decision on rescheduling the Games within four weeks.

Bach had been emphasizing that life was returning to normal in Japan, which has not been hit as hard by the virus as China, Italy, Spain and the United States. On Sunday in Sendai, in Northern Japan, about 50,000 went to a welcoming ceremony to view the Olympic flame, and people in Tokyo have been taking the subways and dining in restaurants, a stark contrast to life in coronavirus hot spots closer to the I.O.C. headquarters in Switzerland.

“This call was arranged hastily,” said Toshiro Muto, chief executive of Tokyo 2020, the local organizing committee, referring to the conference call between Abe and Bach on Tuesday evening in Tokyo.

Abe started his day discussing the Olympics with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau of Canada. He finished with a hearing on the economic impact of the coronavirus, then returned to his official residence for his call with Mr. Bach. Shortly before the call, leaders of the Games in Tokyo, including Mori, the Tokyo governor, Yuriko Koike, and Seiko Hashimoto, Japan’s Olympics minister, arrived at the residence to join him.

Sarah Hirshland, the chief executive of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, which did not support a postponement until Monday night, said in a letter to Team U.S.A. athletes, who had become increasingly frustrated by her lack of action, that “taking a step back from competition to care for our communities and each other is the right thing to do.”

The signal that the decision was certain came earlier Monday, when Australia announced that it would not be able to send a team to Tokyo. John Coates, the leader of Australia’s Olympic organization and an I.O.C. member, is a close ally of Bach’s and leads the I.O.C.’s coordination commission for the Tokyo Games.



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