TOKYO/ATHENS (Reuters) – The Tokyo Olympics were postponed on Tuesday to 2021, the first such delay in the Games’ 124-year modern history, as the coronavirus crisis wrecked the last international 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 how to train as the world headed into lockdown to fight a disease that has claimed more than 16,500 lives.
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 Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, both parties said the July 24-Aug. 9 Games would be moved to the summer of 2021, to be a celebration of triumph over the coronavirus.
The Olympic flame, already lit at Olympia in Greece and carried around Japan in a now-canceled torch relay, would stay in the host nation until then as a symbol of hope.
“This Olympic flame will be the light at the end of this tunnel,” Bach said. An “unprecedented challenge for mankind” had inevitably led to an unprecedented challenge for the Games.
Japanese tennis player Kei Nishikori promptly sent a simple tweet of four pairs of hands held together in prayer, an emoji for ‘thank you’.
Though it was the first Olympics’ postponement, they were canceled outright three times during the two 20th century World Wars. Major Cold War boycotts also disrupted the Moscow and Los Angeles Games in 1980 and 1984.
Bach, who last week was still planning to take four weeks to deliberate on a postponement, said it was still too early to set a new date for the Games.
ATHLETES SAD BUT RELIEVED
Athletes were disappointed but broadly endorsed the delay, given health risks and disruption to their training as gyms, stadia and swimming pools shut down around the world.
“I compete in a little bike race, which is nothing compared to what is going on in the world right now,” American Olympic BMX champion Connor Fields said, before the official announcement. “No sport is more important if it means more people might potentially die from this.”
Australian double Olympic champion swimmer Cate Campbell said she was reeling but ready for the new challenge.
“The goalposts haven’t disappeared – just shifted,” she said, after Australia had said it would not go to Tokyo 2020 if it went ahead.
U.S. skateboarder and gold medal hopeful Nyjah Huston was frustrated, though, especially as his sport was scheduled to make its debut at the Tokyo.
“When skating finally makes it in the Olympics then it gets postponed,” the 25-year-old wrote on Instagram, after a delay had begun to look inevitable. “I was feelin (sic) ready too … now I’m going to have to be a year older for this!”
The coronavirus outbreak has raged around the world since early this year, infecting nearly 380,000 people and wrecking sports events from the European soccer championships to Formula One motor racing.
Despite their disappointment, not to mention the logistical headaches and financial losses coming, a poll indicated that about 70% of Japanese agreed with a delay.
Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike told reporters the delayed Games would still be branded “Tokyo 2020”.
JUMPER WITH NO SANDPIT
In a crowded sporting calendar, which will be making up for this year’s cancellations, World Athletics said it was willing to move its world championships, scheduled for Aug. 6-15, 2021, in Oregon, to clear a path for the Olympics.
The Athletics Association said a poll of more than 4,000 track and field competitors had indicated that 78% had wanted the Games to be delayed.
The association’s American founder, twice Olympic triple jump champion Christian Taylor, is among athletes unable to train due to social distancing and closure of facilities.
“There is no sandpit for me, I have not put on jump spikes for two weeks,” he told Britain’s Times newspaper.
Tuesday’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 carnival of sport featuring 11,000 athletes from 206 nations and territories.
It is not the first time a Japanese Olympics has run into problems. Both the 1940 Summer and Winter Olympic Games were due to be held in Japan but were canceled due to World War Two.
It was not yet clear whether the athletes who had already secured spots in Tokyo this summer – more than half of those due to compete – would need to qualify again.
The postponement is a deep disappointment for Japan’s prime minister, who has staked his legacy on the Games’ success and hoped it would bring a tourism and consumer boom. Such was his enthusiasm that he appeared as video game character Super Mario at the 2016 Olympics’ closing ceremony.
Postponing the Olympics is also a heavy blow that is almost certain to push Japan’s persistently weak economy, the world’s third-largest, into recession.
IOC boss Bach is also in a tricky situation, after his repeated statements that the Games were on track brought a backlash from athletes and some national Olympic committees.
That, combined with disquiet over his support for Russian athletes to continue competing as neutrals despite their nation’s doping scandal, has threatened his grip on the IOC.
Bach is up for re-election next year.
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Additional reporting by Reuters bureaux worldwide; Writing by Andrew Cawthorne; Editing by Angus MacSwan, Nick Macfie, Gareth Jones and Hugh Lawson