Japan’s prime minister suggests postponing Olympics if safety not assured

Isabel Reynolds and Eben Novy-Williams

Toyko — Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told parliament the Tokyo Olympics should be postponed if it is not possible to hold the full event without safety concerns, suggesting Japan could bow to pressure to halt the games due to the coronavirus.

Monday’s comments marked a change in tone from Abe, who has resisted directly mentioning a postponement for the Olympics planned to start in July. They came a day after the International Olympic Committee said it would decide within four weeks how to handle the event amid the deadly outbreak, with a delay being an option.

The Toyko Olympics scheduled to take place in late July appear further in doubt.

If it’s not possible to hold the full event without safety concerns “a decision will have to be made to postpone it,” Abe said. He added that the power to make the decision lay with the IOC, but that he believed the body’s thinking was in line with his own and cancellation was not an option.

Opinion polls have shown the Japanese public is increasingly in favor of putting off the event, for which the country has been preparing since 2013. A survey by Asahi News Network published Monday found that 74% thought it should be postponed, while a separate poll by the Yomiuri newspaper found 69% wanted a delay.

Athletes and athletic bodies have also called for a postponement, saying the outbreak is making training difficult. As of Monday, confirmed cases topped 329,000 and deaths were near 14,500, according to data from Johns Hopkins University.

“I want athletes from all countries to be able to take part having prepared fully and to hold a safe Olympics without worries,” Abe said in response to a question. “I don’t want to reduce the size of the event and I want spectators to share in the excitement,” he added.

The IOC’s Sunday meeting came amid a growing chorus of people saying that the coronavirus pandemic was putting athletes in a compromising position, and making qualifying events impossible to hold. The body said it was “confident that it will have finalized these discussions within the next four weeks.”

Next Year?

The Financial Times reported Sunday that a “gentleman’s agreement” had been reached not to cancel the games, citing people familiar with the talks. It said the likely new date was the summer of 2021, though other options were also under discussion.

In its statement, the IOC laid out some of the logistical hurdles associated with delaying the Olympics. They include millions of hotel nights that were booked this year and the possibility that some of the venues might not be available in 2021 or 2022.

Tokyo has been preparing for the games for years, spending more than $26 billion to ready the city, according to some estimates. With about 600,000 foreign visitors and more than 11,000 athletes expected to attend, the Olympics were supposed to reinvigorate the economy, which saw a 6.3% contraction in the last three months of 2019.

If the Olympics don’t happen, the Japanese economy could face some $60 billion in losses tied directly to the event and indirectly from the lingering effect on tourism, domestic consumption, exports and capital investment, according to a March estimate from Goldman Sachs.