Never before had the Olympic Games been postponed or canceled for something other than war, but rarely has the world come to a grinding halt the way it has over the novel coronavirus.
What felt like the last major sporting event untouched by the current strain of the coronavirus — known formally as COVID-19 — the 2020 Olympics served as a glimmer of hope for the entire globe. But on Tuesday, Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach agreed to postpone the Tokyo 2020 Olympics by about one year.
The opening ceremony had been planned for July 24.
Despite the postponement, the Summer Olympics — when they eventually happen — will still be called the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020. The Olympic flame will also remain stored and displayed in Fukushima.
“[T]he IOC president and the Prime Minister of Japan have concluded that the Games … must be rescheduled to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021, to safeguard the health of the athletes, everybody involved in the Olympic Games and the international community,” said a joint statement by the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee and the IOC.
According to the statement, the World Health Organization had consulted with both parties on Tuesday about what it called the “accelerating” pandemic. There are now more than 390,000 confirmed cases of COVID-19 worldwide, with more than 17,000 deaths. Nearly every country has been impacted.
The decision comes less than 48 hours after the IOC said it was giving itself four weeks to make a decision about the Olympics. As the coronavirus continued to spread in recent weeks, Bach and members of Japan’s government insisted the Games could go forward. Sunday’s statement was the first on-the-record acknowledgment that a postponement could actually happen.
Pressure from nations and athletes alike mounted in recent days, and most recently, Canada said it would not send representatives to the Olympics without a delay. Australia later joined in that decision.
The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee sent a survey over the weekend to more than 4,000 American Olympics hopefuls, and nearly seven in 10 respondents said they didn’t think the Games would be fair if held in July. Germany and Poland had also called for the Games to be delayed.
“Despite the feeling of eventuality that so many of us have felt in the lead up to this moment — my heart breaks for you, your fellow athletes around the world, our friends at Tokyo 2020, the people of Japan, and all who are impacted by this global pandemic and the decision to postpone the Tokyo Games 2020,” USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland wrote in a letter to the athletes.
“We heard your concerns and we shared them. I thank you for being so forthcoming with your perspectives, and also for allowing us the time to hear from your teammates across all sports before making a recommendation to the IOC.”
The Olympics had never been rescheduled for something other than war. In 1916, 1940 and 1944, the Games were canceled because of the world wars.
In addition to the impact on the athletes whose lives have now been upended by the decision, the financial impact will be staggering. The organizers of Tokyo 2020 estimated the cost to be roughly $12.6 billion, while other experts have put that figure closer to $25 billion. The delay will also impact the billions spent by sponsors and broadcasters.
The IOC and Tokyo organizers said they hope the decision to postpone will help the world heal from the pandemic.
“The leaders agreed that the Olympic Games in Tokyo could stand as a beacon of hope to the world during these troubled times and that the Olympic flame could become the light at the end of the tunnel in which the world finds itself at present,” the IOC statement said.