Olympics: Japan PM Shinzo Abe, IOC agree to delay Tokyo Olympics by one year

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Protesters opposed to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in front of a railway station in Tokyo on March 24, 2020. PHOTO: AFP

ATHENS (REUTERS, AFP) - Japan will hold the Tokyo 2020 Olympics Games by the summer of 2021 at latest, owing to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said on Tuesday (March 24).

"I proposed to postpone for about a year and president Bach responded with 100 per cent agreement," Mr Abe told reporters.

He made the comment in a briefing with reporters following a call with International Olympic Committee (IOC) head Thomas Bach.

"We asked president Bach to consider postponement of about one year to make it possible for athletes to play in the best condition, and to make the event a safe and secure one for spectators."

Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike separately told reporters the Games would still be branded "Tokyo 2020" even if they take place next year.

A joint statement by the IOC and the Tokyo 2020 organising committee read: "In the present circumstances and based on the information provided by the WHO (World Health Organisation) today, the IOC president and the Prime Minister of Japan have concluded that the Games in Tokyo must be rescheduled to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021, to safeguard the health of the athletes, everybody involved in the Olympic Games and the international community.

"The leaders agreed that the Olympic Games in Tokyo could stand as a beacon of hope to the world during these troubled times and that the Olympic flame could become the light at the end of the tunnel in which the world finds itself at present. Therefore, it was agreed that the Olympic flame will stay in Japan. It was also agreed that the Games will keep the name Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020."

The July 24-Aug 9 Games have been the last major sporting event left standing in coming months as the coronavirus pandemic put most of the world in virtual lockdown.

The IOC and Japan's initial repeated insistence that the event would go ahead as scheduled - and then their weekend announcement of a lengthy, one-month consultation over possible postponement - perplexed many.

The Olympics have never been delayed in their 124-year modern history, though they were cancelled altogether in 1916, 1940 and 1944 during the two world wars. Major Cold War boycotts disrupted the Moscow and Los Angeles Games in 1980 and 1984.

Pressure on the IOC had been accelerating fast in recent days, with Canada, like Australia, saying it would not participate if the Games went ahead.

Other nations have also pressed hard for a postponement and a quick decision by the Olympic body to end uncertainty.

Athletes, though sad, were mainly in agreement with a delay, given health risks and disruption to their training as gyms, stadiums and swimming pools shut down around the world.

"I have ridden not just a roller coaster but the entire theme park of emotions," Keesja Gofers, part of the Australian women's water polo team, said on Instagram.

"I am relieved. Athletes around the world will now have the chance at a proper preparation and the Olympics can, on whatever date they are held, continue to be a coming together of the world's best at their best."

The coronavirus pandemic has raged around the world, infecting nearly 380,000 people, killing more than 16,500 and wrecking sports events from football's European Championship to Formula One.

"Even if the current significant health concerns could be alleviated by late summer, the enormous disruptions to the training environment, doping controls and qualification process can't be overcome in a satisfactory manner," the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee said.

The US is by far the most successful nation in the history of the modern summer Games, while the rights deal with American broadcaster NBC to televise the Olympics represents from 50 per cent to 70 per cent of the IOC's total annual revenues.

"Today the Games are not the priority, the priority is health, and that is how the world of sports contributes to that international solidarity," Mr Tony Estanguet, head of the Paris 2024 Olympics organising committee and an IOC member, told France Info radio.

Japan and the IOC have previously said calling off the Games entirely is not an option, but a delay would present major logistical difficulties given the crowded global sporting calendar and complex commercial considerations.

World Athletics has said it would be willing to move the 2021 world championships, scheduled for Aug 6-15 in Eugene, Oregon, to clear a path for a 2021 Olympics.

Postponement would be a massive blow for hosts Japan, which has pumped in more than US$12 billion (S$17.3 billion) of investment, while huge sums are also at stake for sponsors and broadcasters.

But a poll showed about 70 per cent of the Japanese think a delay is appropriate.

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