The Olympic flame at the Aquamarine Fukushima aquarium in Iwaki in Fukushima prefecture, Japan, on March 25 2020. Picture: AFP/PHILIP FONG
The Olympic flame at the Aquamarine Fukushima aquarium in Iwaki in Fukushima prefecture, Japan, on March 25 2020. Picture: AFP/PHILIP FONG

Tokyo — Japan awoke on Wednesday to the deflating reality that the Olympics they had hoped to host in Tokyo this summer are now probably 16 months away after the coronavirus crisis forced organisers into an unprecedented postponement.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Japanese government finally succumbed to intense pressure from athletes and sporting bodies around the world on Tuesday when they agreed to push out the Games to 2021.

It is a huge blow to Japan, which has invested $12bn in preparations, but also for the prestige of the Olympic movement and its leader Thomas Bach, who has come under fire for not reacting sooner in the face of the global health crisis.

Japan Olympic Committee (JOC) president Yasuhiro Yamashita said the decision had come earlier than he thought it would, but he is determined the host nation’s athletes will be ready to compete in 2021.

“Now that the decisions have been made, let’s take this positively; re-set our mindset,” he told a news conference. “With a fresh mind, not giving up, I want to go through this challenge heading into next year.”

Japanese government officials said Prime Minster Abe Shinzo had phoned US President Donald Trump to explain the postponement as they sought to further cushion the economy from the twin blows of Covid-19 and the delayed Games.

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 event featuring 11,000 athletes from 206 nations and territories.

The countdown clock in front of Tokyo Station, which had been displaying the number of days until the Games, halted and reverted to Wednesday’s date and time.

Athletes disappointed, but mostly supportive

Athletes around the world, many struggling to train because of restrictions put in place to contain a virus that has killed more than 19,00 people, expressed disappointment, but largely welcomed the decision.

The rapidity of the move from the position that the Games would go ahead as planned to postponement means it came out of the blue for some, however.

“When I learnt the Olympics were being postponed, I was honestly surprised,” Japanese sport climber Tomoa Narasaki said in an Instagram post. “However, no matter when the Olympics are held, there is no change in the things I’m aiming for.”

Many other questions remain about the re-arranged Games, not least when they will happen after the IOC announcement stated only that they would take place “not before the end of summer 2021”.

Somewhere around the original 2020 dates of July 24-August 9 looks most likely, especially after organisers confirmed that the marathon and race-walks will remain in Hokkaido where they were moved to because of the sweltering Tokyo summer heat.

Those dates would require the shifting of other major events scheduled next year, in particular the athletics world championships in the US and the swimming equivalent in the Japanese city of Fukuoka.

World Athletics chief Sebastian Coe has suggested its championships in Eugene, Oregon could be moved to 2022, while swimming’s FINA body said it would discuss a rescheduling of its event with Tokyo organisers and the IOC.

The Olympic flame, already lit at Olympia in Greece and taken to Japan for a now-cancelled torch relay, will stay in the host nation as a symbol of hope and the Games will retain the title Tokyo 2020. “This Olympic flame will be the light at the end of this tunnel,” IOC chief Bach said on Tuesday.

For some athletes, an extra 12 months might be too long a wait and 38-year-old Swiss Nicola Spirig, who won triathlon gold at the 2012 London Olympics, said she would be considering her options.

“For the past months, I have been working daily towards my goal of competing at my fifth Olympic Summer Games,” she posted on Instagram. “I am ... glad to have clarity now and fully support the IOC’s decision [but] as far as my sporting future is concerned, the decision obviously has an impact.”

The 57% of athletes who had already booked spots in Tokyo face a wait to discover whether they will have to qualify again, though Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) CEO Matt Carroll said they would not. “That is our understanding at this time,” Carroll told reporters in Sydney on Wednesday.

US athletes in the major Olympic sports of athletics, swimming and gymnastics had more clarity with their national federations announcing Olympic trials would now be held in 2021.

US Anti-Doping Agency (Usada) chief Travis Tygart warned that the postponement could open the door for convicted drug cheats to compete for medals, and the issue would need to be tackled.

Most athletes, though, appeared to be prepared to follow Yamashita’s advice to Japan by resetting and going again next year. “Tokyo 2020’s becoming Tokyo 2021?” Japanese judoka Naohisa Takato, a bronze medal at the 2016 Rio Olympics, tweeted. “Either way, I’m always ready to fight.”

Reuters