TOKYO/ATHENS: The Tokyo Olympics were postponed yesterday to next year, the first such delay in the Games’ 124-year modern history, as the coronavirus crisis wrecked the world’s last sporting showpiece still standing this year.
Though a huge blow to Japan, which has invested $12 billion in the run-up, the decision was a relief to thousands of athletes fretting over training with the world heading into lockdown to fight a disease that has killed over 16,500 people.
Pressure had been building on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and its president, Thomas Bach, with some athletes and sporting bodies angry that a seemingly inevitable decision had taken so long.
After a call between Bach and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, both said the July 24-Aug. 9 Games would move to the summer of 2021 at the latest in a hoped-for celebration of triumph over the pandemic.
The Olympic flame, already lit at Olympia in Greece and taken to Japan for a now-cancelled torch relay, would stay in the host nation as a symbol of hope.
“Sport is not the most important thing right now, preserving human life is,” Bach said. “This Olympic flame will be the light at the end of this tunnel.”
Though it was the first Olympics postponement, the Games were cancelled outright three times during the last century’s two world wars. Cold War boycotts also disrupted the Moscow and Los Angeles Olympics in 1980 and 1984.
The postponement leaves big question marks over the appeal and viability of the Olympic movement and its quadrennial Games.
Once unarguably the shiniest of jewels in the sporting landscape, a series of doping scandals and investigations into vote rigging have sullied the Olympics’ lustre.
The IOC leadership sought to root out institutional corruption after the Salt Lake City scandal in 1999, when the IOC expelled six members for taking hundreds of thousands of dollars in a vote-buying scandal.
Athletes were disappointed but broadly endorsed the delay, given health risks and disruption to their training as gyms, stadia and swimming pools closed around the world.
“I compete in a little bike race, which is nothing compared to what is going on in the world right now,” said American Olympic BMX champion Connor Fields, who had been looking forward to his sport’s Games debut.
Many began focusing on next year’s competition.
“We’ll be more ready than ever in 2021 and wearing the maple leaf with more pride than I thought possible,” said Canadian Olympic wrestling champion Erica Wiebe, describing her feelings as: “Utter relief. Excitement. Uncertainty.”
It was not yet clear whether athletes who had already secured spots in Tokyo this summer – more than half of those due to compete – would need to qualify again. The Athletics Association said a poll of more than 4,000 track and field competitors showed 78 per cent had wanted the Games delayed.
Yesterday’s decision came 122 days before the planned opening ceremony at Japan’s newly built National Stadium, which was to usher in the 16-day event featuring 11,000 athletes from 206 nations and territories.
Despite their disappointment, not to mention the logistical headaches and financial losses to come, a poll indicated that about 70 per cent of Japanese agreed with a delay.
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