COVID-19 pandemic pushing Tokyo Olympics to 2021, not 2020
The Olympics rings made with various materials and Japan national team's uniforms on display at Tokyo Olympic Museum, in Tokyo, March 23. The IOC will take up to four weeks to consider postponing the Tokyo Olympics amid mounting criticism of its handling of the coronavirus crisis. Jae C. Hong | AP

The headlines coming out of Washington D.C. grow darker with each passing week, and as it’s “only going to get worse” according to the U.S. Surgeon General, more and more states are tightening up their shelter-in orders, as panic and fear permeate the air.

The world of sports is also bracing for the worst. Most, if not all, professional leagues have canceled their current seasons, or have delayed starting indefinitely—at least sports fans have ESPN classic reruns.

The lone outlier in all of this is the Tokyo Olympic Games. They’ve been pretty tight-lipped about canceling the games amid the COVID-19 outbreak. And, the games will most likely go on…in 2021 almost surely instead of in four months as scheduled.

With pressure mounting from all sides—the Canadian Olympic Committee has pulled out, Australia is advising athletes to prepare for 2021 games, Olympic committees in Brazil and Slovenia are calling for a postponement, and the U.S. track and swim teams are pushing for a delay. The International Olympic Committee announced Sunday night it was considering a postponement and would make a final decision in four weeks.

In a letter to athletes, IOC president Thomas Bach explained the decision, while acknowledging the new timeline might not be well received.

“I know that this unprecedented situation leaves many of your questions open,” he wrote. “I also know that this rational approach may not be in line with the emotions many of you have to go through.”

The outcome was almost inevitable as more and more criticism came from national sports bodies and athletes.

Shortly before the IOC’s decision was announced, Global Athlete, a worldwide organization representing hopeful Olympic athletes, called on the IOC to postpone the Tokyo Games.

“As the world unites to limit the spread of COVID-19 virus, the IOC … must do the same,” said Global Athlete in a Sunday news release.

The organization also asked for sportscasters and networks to support the call for a delay in the summer games “with flexibility and understanding during these uncharted times.”

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, speaking before parliament, said a postponement would be needed if the games cannot be held completely because of the COVID-19 pandemic.

“If it is difficult to hold (the games) in a complete way, a decision of postponement would be unavoidable,” he said.

Abe said he hoped the ICO would announce a decision quickly and was joined by Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike in calling for a swift resolution.

Japan is officially spending $12.6 billion to organize the Olympics, but a national audit put the figure at more than twice that much. With a postponement, the bill will surely increase, and a vast majority of the spending will be a heavy cost to the public treasury.

The IOC has a reserve fund of about $2 billion to tide itself over and also has insurance against postponement or cancellation.

“Honestly speaking, four weeks is quite a short time to consider all the necessary elements.” Said Yoshiro Mori, president of the Olympic Organizing Committee of Japan at a Monday news conference. “It requires a tremendous amount of time and we have to hurry to go through this.”

When asked about the added cost, both he and Tokyo Olympics CEO Toshiro Muto skirted the question and gave no direct response.

Stateside, and despite the calls from its members, the CEO of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic team, Sarah Hirshland, is not demanding a delay for the Tokyo Games—despite COVID-19 wreaking havoc globally.

“My role is not to make demands of those making decisions, but to bring forward solutions,” Sarah Hirshland, the CEO of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, told The Associated Press on Sunday.

And despite the growing criticism of Hirshland and the USOPC leadership for not calling on the IOC to postpone the games, Hirshland says she can “handle the heat” and wants the public to know she’s doing her best to make sure postponing the games is the correct call, and what the next steps should be.

“We’re hearing from the athletes loud and clear, and I can guarantee you, the IOC is going to hear from us, loud and clear,” Hirshland said. “It’s really important for us to understand the totality of the environment our athletes are facing. It’s a practical reality that there’s no easy answer right now.”

A Questionable leadership call rooted in “American Exceptionalism”? It fits the overall COVID-19 response by the U.S.

Let’s hope cooler heads prevail.


Al Neal
Al Neal

Award winning journalist Al Neal is PW associate editor for labor and politics. He is also the chief photographer for People's World. He is a member of the Chicago News Guild, Society of Professional Journalists, Professional Photographers of America, National Sports Media Association, and The Ernest Brooks Foundation.