The decision came after the novel coronavirus forced America to start shutting down in recent weeks: universities sending students home, sports being canceled, bars and restaurants closing. Also closing were the pools and gyms where US athletes train for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan. That included facilities in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Lake Placid, New York.
Athletes in the US, and around the world, began to worry that strict quarantine measures would prevent their ability to train at all for the games this summer, and bans on mass gatherings would lead to cancellations or delays for the qualifying tournaments athletes need to make their national teams.
And that’s not even getting to the astonishing public health risks — to athletes, to fans, to the personnel and staff who make these games run — of hosting a massive international sporting event during a pandemic.
The calls to postpone the Olympics grew louder and louder last week. Sport governing bodies — including USA Swimming and USA Track and Field — called on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to postpone the games for one year. Then, entire countries said they would pull out of the games, including Canada and Australia. The US, on Monday, also encouraged postponement.
By the weekend, the International Olympic Committee looked ready to accept reality: that it couldn’t fully commit to having the 2020 Summer Games go on as scheduled on July 24, as it had said just earlier that week.
IOC President Thomas Bach wrote an open letter to athletes on March 22, saying the organization had started discussions, including about postponement, and would make a decision in four weeks. The IOC said that, in light of the coronavirus, it will step-up its “scenario-planning” for the Olympic games. “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.”
The IOC did say explicitly that “cancellation” was not on the agenda, meaning that any scenario would involve postponement. Even Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo recognized some change was likely needed, saying at a press conference Monday that “in order to make the athletes our top priority, we may have no choice but to decide to postpone the Games.”
On Monday, March 23, International Olympic Committee member Dick Pound told USA Today in an exclusive interview that the Tokyo games would be postponed, likely until 2021.
“On the basis of the information the IOC has, postponement has been decided,” Pound told USA Today. “The parameters going forward have not been determined, but the Games are not going to start on July 24, that much I know.”
The IOC itself was not ready to confirm at that point, but by the next day, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced the Tokyo games would be pushed back. “In light of the current conditions and for all the athletes, we made a proposal of a postponement of about a year, to hold them securely and safely,” Abe said Tuesday.
In a statement alongside Abe’s announcement, the IOC said the games would 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.”
Talking to medical experts and athlete representatives alike, this is the right move, for the health and safety of the competitors, and, really, the rest of the world.
It doesn’t come without complications: Olympic sites are chosen years in advance, and Japan has invested billions of dollars in preparing for the 2020 games. And postponing the games is still risky, as no one really knows whether Covid-19 will be under control by summer 2021. And yet, delay may be the best and only option right now.
“The Japanese Prime Minister and the International Olympic Committee made the right decision to postpone the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics for a year,” Ambassador (Ret.) John Lange, a senior fellow for Global Health Diplomacy at the United Nations Foundation who served the US Special Representative on Avian and Pandemic Influenza from 2006 to 2009, told me. “Based on the continued worldwide increase in COVID-19 cases in the midst of this pandemic, the decision was inevitable and was better made sooner rather than later.”
Hosting a mass gathering in the time of a pandemic is never a good idea
Back in May 2016, 150 public health experts, scientists, and ethicists signed an open letter to the World Health Organization urging for the postponement or relocation of the upcoming Summer Olympic games in Rio de Janeiro.
The reason was Zika, a mosquito-borne illness linked to significant birth defects, specifically microcephaly, which causes infants to have underdeveloped brains. Public health officials, including the CDC, were urging people to avoid traveling to Zika hot zones. “If that advice were followed uniformly, no athlete would have to choose between risking disease and participating in a competition that many have trained for their whole lives,” the letter read.
Some individual athletes did sit out the 2016 games, but the competition still went ahead. Fast forward four years later, and any fears over Zika look small in comparison to the concerns around the novel coronavirus.
The highly infectious respiratory illness has now spread globally. It has brought economies to a near-standstill, as governments have been forced to impose restrictions, from literal surveillance in places like China, to nationwide shutdowns in Italy and Spain, to state-by-state stay-at-home orders in the United States.
There is no proven treatment, no vaccine, and, because it is new to humans, no natural immunity.
Even places that seem to have brought the spread under control are under threat of new flare-ups, including from arrivals from places where the infection has since spread.
So if there is ever a time not to host a mass gathering of people from all over the world, it is now. But as plenty of other sports, from the NBA to European soccer leagues to tennis, canceled or postponed competition, the 2020 Olympics looked stubbornly committed to moving ahead as planned.
“With more than four months to go before the Games there is no need for any drastic decisions at this stage; and any speculation at this moment would be counter-productive,” the IOC said in a statement on March 17.
This seemed overly and even willfully optimistic. Arthur Caplan, professor of bioethics at New York University Langone Medical Center, told me last week (before the IOC postponed) that it was a bit like “an ostrich trying to put your head in the ground.”
This is just because absolutely no one knows what’s going to happen with the novel coronavirus in the next weeks and months, and even if the virus is under control by July, the world lockdowns and quarantine measures are already disrupting the games.
For athletes, there is training and qualifying and anti-doping tests, all of which have been disrupted. Then there’s the training for the thousands of volunteers who work at and help run the games, which has to start weeks in advance, and the business owners who have to decide whether to buy 2020 Tokyo keychains.
“The only word that comes to mind about not postponing right now is very, very short-sighted, not practical, slightly unethical,” Caplan told me last week.
Mass gatherings like the Olympics and other sporting events always carry some public health risks, because you’re bringing in a lot of people from all around the world and packing them tightly together. A flu outbreak hung over the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan. A large norovirus outbreak became a problem at the 2018 games in South Korea. And, of course, there are always concerns about the spread of sexually transmitted infections.
Coronavirus amplifies these challenges to an almost unprecedented degree. It’s a new virus in humans, so there is still a lot scientists don’t know. Many people can be asymptomatic but still transmit the virus, so it can be hard to detect or screen for.
Mary E. Wilson, a clinical professor at the University of California San Francisco and visiting professor at Harvard University, told me that the Olympics are basically packing people into a “setting where there are the ideal circumstances for spread from person to person.” People can transmit it to those who are not infected, and those newly infected can then carry it back home, infecting others in their communities.
“Even if things are under control in many places bringing people together for the Olympic games could help reignite infection in multiple other ways,” Wilson said.
Athletes wanted certainty, one way or another
Hayley Wickenheiser, a Canadian hockey star, Olympian, and member of the IOC Athletes Commission, which represents athletes, wrote on Twitter last week that “to say for certain that the [Olympics] will go ahead is an injustice to the athletes training and global population at large.”
Should the @olympics be canceled? No one knows at this point and that IS my point. To say for certain they will go ahead is an injustice to the athletes training and global population at large. We need to acknowledge the unknown. #COVID19 https://t.co/CssKuMaMhj— Hayley Wickenheiser (@wick_22) March 17, 2020
Wickenheiser’s point was basically that while the coronavirus could be under control by July, athletes are being affected right now.
She was joined by athletes and athlete representatives who were desperately searching for clarity about what to do, and who felt that the IOC’s insistence that the games would go ahead made little sense. In some cases, if athletes wanted to train, they could be in direct defiance of stay-at-home orders, putting their own safety at risk. In lots of cases, the qualifying tournaments for the games had already been postponed, leaving athletes unsure how’d they even get a chance to compete in the games.
Fairness in the games also came up, particularly if the ability to train or qualify wasn’t equal worldwide, and countries were unable to even field teams. Plus, anti-doping agencies have reduced testing of athletes, because of travel restrictions and limits in capacity amid a public health crisis.
Han Xiao, a former Olympian in table tennis who is now the head of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Athletes’ Advisory Council, told me Friday that the IOC was not answering athletes’ concerns about what conditions needed to be met if the games were to go forward in July — questions vital to the health and safety of athletes who would be traveling and living in close quarters in the Olympic Village.
He added that it was uncommon for athletes to be very critical of something related to the Olympics or Paralympics, but that the coronavirus has changed that.
The pressure did not go unheeded, and the IOC said over the weekend that it would finalize its discussions in the next four weeks. It signaled that postponement was possible, and by Tuesday, both Japan and the IOC had decided to delay.
“Postponing the Games is certainly the right decision based on the current circumstances as well what we’ve heard from athletes around the world. We thank the IOC and the Japanese government for their willingness to make this difficult decision in this time of crisis,” Xiao told me in a follow-up email on Tuesday.
“This will give our athletes more certainty and allow them to plan and prepare accordingly moving forward while taking all necessary precautions to protect themselves and their communities,” Xiao said.
Xiao added that there were still plenty of uncertainties to deal with still, including whether those who’ve already qualified will have their spots protected.
Postponing the Olympics might be the right decision, but it’s definitely not an easy one
The Olympics have been canceled three times, in 1916, 1940, and in 1944, all during World Wars. In September 1972, after the terrorist attack in Munich during the games, officials suspended competition for a day, Bill Mallon the past president of the International Society of Olympic Historians, told me, but after that, the games resumed.
There have also been some weather disruptions and other minor hiccups during the games, but never a delay of this magnitude. The closest analogue is likely the Women’s World Cup, which was moved from China in 2003, following the outbreak of SARS.
So this is unprecedented for both the International Olympic Committee and the host country, Japan. And though just postponing the games by a year may sound simple, it’s likely to be a pretty big undertaking.
“The Olympics are a huge enterprise,” Lange told me, though he made clear he believed postponement was the right decision.
The IOC mentioned some of those challenges in its statement on March 22. Some of the venues might not be available anymore, millions of hotels would need to be rebooked, and some of them might no longer be available, and “the international sports calendar for 33 Olympic sports would have to be adapted.”
And then there is Japan itself, which is hosting the games in Tokyo. The Olympic games are not a small thing for Japan, both economically and symbolically. Jun Saito, senior research fellow at the Japan Center for Economic Research, told the New York Times in March that Japan invested between $32 billion and $41 billion on infrastructure for the games, including building venues and expanding hotel capacity. Japan’s economy was already struggling before the coronavirus outbreak took a hit, and the delay in the Olympics might cause more problems, wiping away that potential revenue this year.
Beyond that, Mireya Solís, director of the Center for East Asia Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution, told me that the Olympics were the centerpiece of Abe’s plan to reassert Japan’s global prominence — a chance for the government to say, “Japan is back.”
“In many ways, this was to show the world where Japan is now, today,” Solis said. “Japan was finding its way back to be a proactive player internationally.”
Abe can still have his moment in 2021, of course, but it’s still not clear if the Covid-19 pandemic will be over by then.
“Given even the limited amount we know so far, I think we’ll continue to see eruptions of outbreaks in a lot of different parts of the world, and I don’t think this is going to be over in two or three months,” Wilson, the clinical professor at UCSF, told me. “Even a year from now may be too soon.”
Then again, the Olympics might be exactly what the world needs as it emerges, hopefully, from a pandemic. Olympic ideals — fair competition, solidarity, goodwill — may be the antidote to a world that feels as if it’s falling apart, even if it can’t happen this summer.