For more than a century, the modern Olympics had persevered through floods, disease and political unrest. Only the first and second World Wars had forced them to step aside.
But on Tuesday the coronavirus outbreak proved too great a threat, prompting the International Olympic Committee to postpone the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo until next year.
The decision, announced late in the evening in Japan, was reached amid mounting pressure from athletes and member nations concerned about the IOC’s hesitance in responding to the pandemic.
IOC President Thomas Bach and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe agreed on the move after consulting with the World Health Organization and holding a conference call to address the “constantly changing environment” caused by a virus that has infected nearly 400,000 people worldwide.
“The unprecedented and unpredictable spread of the outbreak has seen the situation in the rest of the world deteriorating,” they said, adding that postponement was necessary to “safeguard the health of the athletes, everybody involved in the Olympic Games and the international community.”
No specific date was set, with officials saying only that the massive sporting event — including the Paralympics to follow shortly after — would take place no later than summer.
“I don’t think there was any choice,” said Ben Blankenship, a top U.S. runner and finalist in the 1,500 meters at the 2016 Olympics. “You would put the athletes, fans, coaches and volunteers at risk of traveling.”
With the July 24 opening ceremony drawing nearer, the postponement came as a relief to Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike.
There have been recent increases in COVID-19 cases reported in the capital city. Commuter trains have become more crowded, and official pleas to refrain from taking part in the annual cherry blossom viewing events were largely ignored.
Koike told the NHK news service in Japan that her city could return to a “wartime situation” with widespread lockdowns.
Tokyo resident Yumi Koyama wondered why officials had waited until now to announce a delay.
“It seemed clear enough that this would be the outcome,” she said. “Many people were saying the shortage of (coronavirus) tests in Japan, especially compared with South Korea, was an attempt to keep the Olympic flame alight, and that the number of actual cases here is considerably higher than is being reported.”
But some younger residents interviewed by Nippon TV voiced dismay at having to wait for the Games.
“Everything was heating up because they said it was going ahead, so I’m a little disappointed,” said one man in central Tokyo. A woman told the broadcaster that her “heart goes out” to the athletes.
Even as pro leagues such as the NBA and NHL suspended their seasons and major sporting events around the world were postponed or canceled, recent weeks had seen Olympic leaders repeatedly insisting they were moving ahead as planned. It was just last weekend that they had issued a lengthy statement vowing to “step up” discussions on the issue with Tokyo 2020 organizers, Japanese government officials and public health experts.
They said that cancellation was not being considered and gave themselves four weeks to reach a final determination.
But pressure to act more quickly had intensified over the last 72 hours as the Canadian Olympic Committee declared it would not send a team to Tokyo in July and Australia advised its athletes to prepare for a one-year delay.
“This is not solely about athlete health,” Team Canada said. “It is about public health.”
The national Olympic committees from Brazil, Norway and Slovenia also called for postponement.
On Monday, USA Gymnastics said that a survey of its athletes found 62% of respondents favored delaying the Games. The national governing body joined with USA Swimming and USA Track & Field in calling for a new date.
The U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee issued a statement offering its support of Tuesday’s announcement.
“With this decision, the work of planning a new version of the Tokyo Games is now officially underway,” said Sarah Hirshland, chief executive of the USOPC.
The international track federation similarly agreed with the delay.
“It is what athletes want and we believe this decision will give all athletes, technical officials and volunteers some respite and certainty in these unprecedented and uncertain times,” World Athletics said in a statement.
The 1916 Summer Games were canceled because of war (the Winter Games did not begin until 1924). The same thing happened to the Summer and Winter Games of 1940 and 1944. Tokyo was supposed to host in the summer of 1940.
This time, merely switching the date will be difficult.
International federations representing more than 30 summer sports have secured host cities and venues for their world championships in 2021. The IOC previously said millions of Tokyo hotel rooms had been booked for this summer, and some of the city’s venues might not be available a year from now.
Tokyo 2020 organizers face another challenge. They have reported spending $12.6 billion on preparations; other estimates have put the total closer to $25 billion. Their sprawling athletes village is scheduled to be sold off, piece by piece, as condominiums in the fall.
NBCUniversal, which has paid $12 billion for Olympic broadcast rights through 2032, could also suffer a hit after saying it had sold 90% of its commercials for this summer.
Financial considerations could ultimately force another change in plans, said Rick Burton, a sports management professor at Syracuse University.
“My prediction is that eventually, the IOC will announce either to cancel the Games or move the Summer Games into 2022,” Burton said.
Long-time IOC member Dick Pound of Canada said athletes might have to be housed at a different location in 2021. He acknowledged the challenges ahead for international federations.
“But swimming and all the other sports really want the Olympics for exposure,” Pound said. “They want that world stage.”
Track federation officials said they have launched discussions on clearing their calendar by potentially shifting dates for the track world championships, which are scheduled to be held in Eugene, Ore., next summer.
Some sports officials expressed concern about athletes who had already qualified for Tokyo. The question is, will they still have a guaranteed spot next year?
“For our ranked athletes, this is the single biggest stressor,” said Phil Andrews, chief executive of USA Weightlifting. “The fear they may have to fight again for what they have already earned.”
Marathoner Jacob Riley, who recently qualified for the U.S. team, knows the Games could not have been held this summer, but feels conflicted about all the details — including a specific date — still to be determined.
“Even though I’ve been mentally preparing myself for Olympic postponement for the past couple weeks, it’s still pretty gutting to see it made official,” Riley posted on social media. “I want to compete so badly, and even though it’s a postponement, not a cancellation, there’s still so much uncertainty, and that uncertainty is scary.”