KEIR RADNEDGE REPORTING —- The International Olympic Committee, finally, is prepared to consider a postonement of the 2020 Olympic Games due to be held in Tokyo in July and August because of the worldwide coronavirus crisis.

A statement from the IOC after an executive board tele-conference led by president Thomas Bach could not bring itself to concede that precise word, preferring the euphemisim of “scenario-planning.”

Pressure has been growing, from athletes – who are traditionally supposed to be “at the heart of the Games” – and their coaches for the IOC to demonstrate that it does understand the realities of the real world in which training facilities and travel operations have been shut down because of a public health issue whose ramifications are far more serious than any sports event, no matter how high-profile.

Thomas Bach . . . delicate balancing act for the IOC

Statements urging postponement have come from both swimming and track-and-field associations in the United States as well as UK Athletics and the US Anti Doping Association.

It was only a matter of time before a national Olympic committee dared come off the diplomatic fence. Slovenia appears to have been the first and represented a likely tipping point before more timorous NOCs followed on.

Bach and Japan’s Prime Minister Shunzo Abe had held a firm line of resistance. Until now.

No cancellation

A cautiously-worded statement from the IOC insisted that cancellation was not an option but “modifying existing operational plans” most definitely was.

The statement said:

To safeguard the health of all involved and to contribute to the containment of COVID-19, the executive board of the International Olympic Committee today announced that the IOC will step up its scenario-planning for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. 

These scenarios relate to modifying existing operational plans for the Games to go ahead on 24 July 2020 and also for changes to the start date of the Games.

This step will allow better visibility of the rapidly changing development of the health situation around the world and in Japan. It will serve as the basis for the best decision in the interest of the athletes and everyone else involved. 

On the one hand, there are significant improvements in Japan where the people are warmly welcoming the Olympic flame.

‘New outbreaks’

This could strengthen the IOC’s confidence in the Japanese hosts that the IOC could, with certain safety restrictions, organise Olympic Games in the country whilst respecting its principle of safeguarding the health of everyone involved. 

On the other hand, there is a dramatic increase in cases and new outbreaks of COVID-19 in different countries on different continents. This led the EB to the conclusion that the IOC needs to take the next step in its scenario-planning. 

A number of critical venues needed for the Games could potentially not be available anymore. 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.

Bach sought to clarify the IOC’s strategy – with continuance as scheduled still the preference – in an open letter to all potential competitors in which he stressed a safeguarding of the health of all concerned as a priority.

Leading principle 

He wrote:

Human lives take precedence over everything, including the staging of the Games. The IOC wants to be part of the solution. Therefore we have made it our leading principle to safeguard the health of everyone involved, and to contribute to containing the virus.

I wish, and we all are working for this, that the hope so many athletes, NOCs and IFs from all five continents have expressed will be fulfilled: that at the end of this dark tunnel we are all going through together, not knowing how long it is, the Olympic flame will be a light at the end of this tunnel.

Bach acknowledged that the practicalities of postponement are immense, not only in seeking out a suitable window in a jam-packed sporting calendar but it keeping happy the various stakeholders – most notably the broadcasters who effectively underwrite the costs.

The IOC statement called for the cooperation of the Japanese authorities and international sports movement.

Broadcasters’ key role

It added:

[This] would also require commitment from, and collaboration with, the rights-holding broadcasters and our TOP partner sponsors, as part of their continued and valued support to the Olympic Movement, as well as cooperation from all the Games’ partners, suppliers and contractors.

It is in this spirit of the Olympic stakeholders’ shared commitment to the Olympic Games, and in light of the worldwide deteriorating situation, that the IOC EB has today initiated the next step in the IOC’s scenario-planning.

Hence the IOC would start detailed assessments of the health crisis and its likely impact on the Games. A final decision was expected “within the next four weeks [but] a cancellation of the Games would not solve any of the problems or help anybody. Therefore, cancellation is not on the agenda.”