Coronavirus pandemic

Abe says Games will go on but concedes delay possible

Japanese PM Shinzo Abe acknowledging in Parliament yesterday for the first time that the Tokyo Olympics could be postponed to "give top priority to the athletes".
Japanese PM Shinzo Abe acknowledging in Parliament yesterday for the first time that the Tokyo Olympics could be postponed to "give top priority to the athletes". PHOTO: EPA-EFE

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has been adamant about holding the Tokyo Olympic Games as scheduled this summer, yesterday buckled in the face of growing global opposition and said a postponement was on the table.

"I have to say that the world is not in a condition for an Olympics at this point in time," he told the Diet, as Japan's Parliament is known. But he stressed that scrapping the quadrennial sporting event altogether was not on the cards.

He had previously emphasised that the Games must be held in "a complete format", with spectators and not behind closed doors, but added yesterday: "When it becomes difficult to do so, we will have no choice but to postpone the Games and give top priority to the athletes."

This was his first time acknowledging that it may be foolhardy to press on with the event as planned.

The Olympics are scheduled from July 24 to Aug 9, while the Paralympics are slated to be held from Aug 25 to Sept 6.

The International Olympic Committee's (IOC) and Japan's insistence that the show would go on had appeared increasingly tone-deaf by the day amid the pandemic.

Australia and Canada, both friends of Japan, said they would withdraw from the Games were it to be held this year.

Calls to delay the Olympics also came from sports organisations in countries such as Brazil, Britain, France and Norway.

The Japanese media were in overdrive yesterday over the best time for a delayed Olympics, with either 2021 or 2022 likely despite an already-packed sporting calendar.

The IOC has come under a maelstrom of criticism from athletes who are unable to train, with sporting facilities under lockdown in many countries.

Medical experts forecast the pandemic to last until the end of this year at the earliest.

And even if Japan, with 1,138 cases as of last night, manage to get the domestic outbreak under control, holding the Games would mean opening its doors to athletes and visitors worldwide, including potential carriers of the virus.

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said yesterday that a lockdown of the capital, with 154 cases yesterday and increasing numbers of unlinked infections, was possible if the situation worsens.

Meanwhile, Tokyo 2020 Olympic Committee chief Yoshiro Mori said the 121-day Olympic torch relay is still set to flag off from Fukushima on Thursday.

The Japanese public is also overwhelmingly in favour of postponing the Games, as evident in a series of media polls. The latest, a weekend survey by the Yomiuri Shimbun, showed seven in 10 people felt it was better to delay the event.

Still, any postponement will bring a blow to the Japanese economy. Jiji Press cited Dai-ichi Life Research Institute chief economist Toshihiro Nagahama estimating that it could lose 3.2 trillion yen (S$42.2 billion) this year.

Professor Heng Yee Kuang, at the University of Tokyo's Graduate School of Public Policy, told The Straits Times that Mr Abe was "bowing to the inevitable and that the writing was on the wall".

"It has been clear for some time that the Olympics is not tenable when many athletes are not able to train or even qualify," he said, adding that continuing to insist on going ahead with the Games at this point might backfire on him politically and diplomatically.

Sophia University political scientist Koichi Nakano added that Mr Abe could have put his foot down much earlier, instead of seemingly reacting to global pressure. He said: "Maybe it was an eagerness not to lose face, but it says a lot about Japanese crisis management... It would have been more productive had he accepted it was a lost cause and refocused his priorities."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 24, 2020, with the headline Abe says Games will go on but concedes delay possible. Subscribe