Athletes around the world are calling for the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo to be postponed until the Covid-19 pandemic is under control. But thus far, the International Olympics Committee has held off on making any changes to its plans.
Currently, the IOC’s official position is that the Olympics will begin on July 24, as scheduled. March 12 saw the traditional lighting of the torch in Olympia, Greece, and although the torch relay was canceled after the second day due to fear of crowds, the flame reached Tokyo on Friday as planned.
In a lengthy interview with the New York Times on Thursday, IOC president Thomas Bach signaled that the organizing body might be open to postponing the games, but that it would not make any such decision in the near future. “It would not be responsible in any way to set a date or take a decision right now,” he said, “which would be based on the speculation about the future developments.”
Bach has not set a date by which point the IOC will have to make a final decision about postponing the games, saying that he will not speculate, but he has remained firm in saying that he will not cancel them.
Because the games have not been officially postponed, athletes are stuck in a state of limbo. They’re still expected to train for the games, but the gyms where they are supposed to train have mostly been shut down. And Bach’s latest interview comes after weeks of messaging from IOC urging athletes to continue planning to attend the Olympics in July, coronavirus or not.
On March 7, Bach issued a letter to Olympians encouraging them to continue to train for the games “with ‘full steam’” so that “we, the Olympic community, can once more unite the whole world in a peaceful competition.” On Wednesday, the New York Times reports, IOC officials held a two-hour conference call with Olympic athletes and national Olympic committees urging athletes to continue to train and characterizing coronavirus as “not a deadly disease.”
Increasingly, Olympic committees and sports federations are speaking out against the IOC’s current “wait and see” stance, calling for the games to be officially postponed.
On Friday, USA Swimming issued an open letter to the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee requesting that the games be postponed for one year.
“The right and responsible thing to do is to recognize everyone’s health and safety and appropriately recognize the toll this global pandemic is taking on athletic preparations,” USA Swimming’s letter reads. “It has transcended borders and wreaked havoc on entire populations, including those of our respected competitors.”
USA Track and Field followed suit on Saturday with another open letter. “We are all experiencing unfathomable disruptions, and everyone’s lives are being impacted accordingly,” said the USATF. “The alternative of moving forward in light of the current situation would not be in the best interests of our athletes (as difficult as that decision might be).”
USA Gymnastics has yet to make a statement, but it sent a survey to its members on Friday asking what its stance should be.
While the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee has remained reluctant to make an official request of the IOC, the Olympic Committees for both Norway and Brazil have issued statements calling for the games to be postponed. And individual athletes and Olympians have begun to speak out as well.
“This crisis is bigger than even the Olympics,” said six-time Olympian and current IOC Athletes Commission member Hayley Wickenheiser in a statement on Twitter on Tuesday. Wickenheiser, who is currently in training to become a doctor, went on, “I think the IOC insisting this will move ahead, with such conviction, is insensitive and irresponsible given the state of humanity.”
“For all of those athletes in the U.S., but also globally, like in Italy and in China, who are on complete lockdowns, I think it would make it a fairer competition in Tokyo if the Olympics were postponed to give everyone the time they need to be ready,” Laurie Hernandez, who won a gold medal in gymnastics in 2016, told the New York Times on Saturday.
Meanwhile, a survey published last Monday in Japan showed that 69.9 percent of people do not expect the Olympics to go forward in Tokyo this summer. But the financial cost of canceling the games would be substantial for Japan, which has already invested at least $12.6 billion into the 2020 Olympics. In a video conference on Monday, Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe declared his commitment to hosting the games.
“I want to hold the Olympics and Paralympics perfectly,” he said, “as proof that the human race will conquer the new coronavirus.”