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Olympics nears postponement with IOC member joining drumbeat

Detroit News wire services

The Tokyo Olympics are headed toward the first postponement since the modern games began in the 19th century, as national teams arrange to pull out and Japan’s leader acknowledged a delay may be unavoidable due to the coronavirus.

International Olympic Committee member Dick Pound added to the drumbeat on Monday, telling USA Today that the decision to push back the July-August event has already been made. But the committee hasn’t announced a delay yet. It said over the weekend that it would figure out its plans within four weeks.

A countdown clock for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics is reflected in a puddle of water Monday outside Tokyo Station in Tokyo.

“On the basis of the information the IOC has, postponement has been decided,” Pound said in an interview with the newspaper. “The parameters going forward have not been determined, but the games are not going to start on July 24, that much I know.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told parliament Monday that the Olympics will have to be postponed if safety can’t be guaranteed for spectators and athletes due to the pandemic.

After weeks of avoiding direct mention of scuttling the current schedule, Abe changed his tone and said if the full games cannot be held in an environment where everyone feels safe, “a decision will have to be made to postpone it.” He added that cancellation was not an option and that he wanted an IOC decision to be made as soon as possible.

The Tokyo 2020 committee echoed the tone, with President Yoshiro Mori saying organizers will discuss different scenarios for the games within four weeks, ruling out cancellation.

The aim is to hold the event this year, even with any delay, he said. Abe added he may have to communicate his own thoughts directly to IOC President Thomas Bach, adding the world wasn’t ready to hold an Olympics right now.

Abe and Bach were looking to speak by phone Tuesday, national broadcaster NHK reported.

If the Olympics are called off, it would be the biggest event to be halted by the virus, which has caused more than 375,000 confirmed cases, led to a plunge in global markets and slammed the brakes on international travel.

The last time an Olympics was canceled was in 1944 due to World War II, and the games have never been delayed by as long as a year under the auspices of the IOC, which was established in 1894. The 1940 games were initially postponed but then canceled.

Several nations are calling for the Olympics to be pushed back until at least 2021. That would cause logistical nightmares but would be far less painful than cancellation for the host, sponsors, broadcasters and others that have tens of billions of dollars invested in the international sports event. Japan’s Sankei newspaper said organizers were now looking at a delay of a year or less, to avoid any clash with the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022.

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. A canceled or postponed Olympics would likely result in Japan’s economy shrinking for the longest stretch since the global financial crisis, according to some economists.

Canadian halt

The Canadian Olympic Committee and Canadian Paralympic Committee “urgently” called on the IOC and other organizers to postpone the event by a year.

“While we recognize the inherent complexities around a postponement, nothing is more important than the health and safety of our athletes,” they said. “We are in the midst of a global health crisis that is far more significant than sport.”

Other major sporting federations and political leaders have also called on the IOC and Japanese organizers to postpone the games, with the pandemic already wrecking training for athletes and showing no signs of abating by July.

The Australian Olympic Committee, anticipating that the games will be postponed, said Monday its athletes should prepare for the event to be held next year and World Athletics, the global federation for track and field, said it’s “ready to work with the IOC and all sport on an alternative date.”

A formal decision by the IOC may take weeks because of the time it takes to notify its multitude of stakeholders.

“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. “I don’t want to reduce the size of the event and I want spectators to share in the excitement,” he added.

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.

Despite concerns about postponement, the Olympic flame touched down in Japan last week and Abe was set to attend the start of the torch relay on Thursday.

Tokyo 2021?

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

The Financial Times reported Sunday that the likely new date was the summer of 2021, though other options were also under discussion, citing people familiar with the discussions.

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.

Japan has spent more than $26 billion to ready Tokyo for the games, 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 contracted 7.1% on an annualized basis in the last three months of 2019.