TORONTO/TOKYO (REUTERS) - Canada became the first country to pull out of the Tokyo Games due to the coronavirus pandemic and Australia told its athletes to prepare for an Olympics next year as Japan and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) flagged the prospect of a postponement for the first time.
Opposition to holding the Games in July has risen sharply in the past 48 hours, with several major stakeholders such as US Track and Field and UK Athletics, along with some national Olympic committees, calling for a delay because of the pandemic.
More than 13,000 people have died globally since the coronavirus outbreak began.
On Sunday (March 22), the IOC said it would hold discussions that would include an option of putting back the July 24 start date or even moving the Games by a year or more.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told parliament on Monday postponing the Olympics may become an option if holding the Games in its "complete form" became impossible.
"If that becomes difficult, we may have no option but to consider postponing the Games, given the Olympic principle of putting the health of athletes first," he said.
He also said calling off the Games entirely was not an option, echoing the IOC position in its statement that cancellation "was not on the agenda".
The organising committee for the Olympics and Paralympics will be holding a news conference in Tokyo at 2.30pm local time on Monday.
Canada's Olympic and Paralympic Committees urgently called on organisers and the World Health Organisation (WHO) to postpone the Games for one year.
"We offer them our full support in helping navigate all the complexities that rescheduling the Games will bring," the committees said in a statement. "While we recognise the inherent complexities around a postponement, nothing is more important than the health and safety of our athletes and the world community."
While Canada is the first country to say it will not send a delegation to compete in the summer of 2020, the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) said on Monday its athletes should prepare for a Tokyo Games taking place in 2021.
"The AOC believes our athletes now need to prioritise their own health and of those around them, and to be able to return to the families, in discussion with their National Federations," the AOC said in a statement.
Canada's Olympic Committee said it reviewed the IOC's assessment of the situation and applauded it for recognising the need to consider alternate scenarios for hosting the Games.
On Friday, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau had said it was up to Canadian athletes to decide on going to Tokyo even if the Games went ahead.
Canada's boycott will add to growing pressure on the IOC to alter the schedule after criticism from a slew of current and former athletes with health concerns.
"YESSSSSS CANADA!!!!!!! pulls out of OLYMPICS UNLESS IOC POSTPONE!!!," tweeted U.S. hurdler Lolo Jones. "OUR HEALTH IS MORE important than sport. Hopefully the UNITED STATES is next."
The United States Olympic Committee said it would not be commenting on Canada's decision but had earlier welcomed the IOC's statement, saying more clarity was needed.
"The progress reflected in today's IOC update to the global athlete community is an important step in providing clarity, but our athlete community continues to face enormous ambiguity surrounding the 2020 Games in Tokyo," said USOPC chief executive Sarah Hirshland and USOPC athletes advisory council chair Han Xiao in a joint statement.
US media reported on Sunday that American athletes had voted during a virtual town hall with USOPC officials and given Tokyo the thumbs down. Almost three-quarters of the 300 athletes who met online with USOPC supported delaying the Games, USA Today reported. In all, 70 per cent of the athletes supported a postponement, according to details supplied by a member of the USOPC Athletes Advisory Council.
The Olympics have never been postponed or cancelled during peacetime but the IOC's decision to even consider postponement was met with relief from several major stakeholders, including World Athletics, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) and major national Olympic committees. The last major boycott of the Olympics was when the Soviet bloc stayed away from the 1984 Los Angeles Games, although North Korea and Cuba skipped the 1988 Seoul Olympics.
"As an Olympian, feeling for Team Canada athletes and coaches who have worked so hard…I know these decisions will impact many beyond sport," tweeted Charmaine Crooks, a five-time Canadian Olympic sprinter and former IOC member. "Health first."