By delaying Tokyo Games, the International Olympic Committee finally admits it’s not the main game in town


The International Olympic Committee has announced the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games is now officially Tokyo 2021.

Key Points:

  • The Tokyo 2020 Olympic games have been postponed until 2021
  • Australia had already said it would not attend the games if held in July 2020
  • The Olympic Flame will remain in Japan until the games are held

On Tuesday evening Tokyo time, Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe joined IOC president Thomas Bach and other Olympic officials — including Australian Olympic Committee president John Coates — in a conference call where it was agreed the Games be postponed due to the global impact of coronavirus.

It’s the only decision that could be made after they’d seemingly been backed into a corner with nowhere to go.

As with most things Olympic there are layers of protocol, mystery and ceremony, sometimes rendering the organisation tone-deaf.

Tuesday night’s statement from the IOC sounded like a diary note from a human resources bonding exercise.

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“In a very friendly and constructive meeting, the two leaders praised the work of the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee and noted the great progress being made in Japan to fight against COVID-19.”

The Games will be rescheduled “to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021”.

Decisions in non-record time

When people look back on this episode it won’t be Thomas Bach they remember; it will be the IOC’s longest-serving member, Canada’s Dick Pound.


IOC member Dick Pound was quick to question whether the Olympics should go ahead in 2020. (Reuters: Christinne Muschi)

A month ago he kickstarted the conversation with a string of media interviews suggesting it was time to make a call on Tokyo 2020 amid the coronavirus crisis.

To be fair, the IOC said it wouldn’t be rushed into making a decision with time on its side — the Games were still four months away.

But they weren’t even convincing the true believers — the athletes.

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Voices from around the world were growing, anxious for an explanation as to why it was expected athletes should continue training while much of humanity had been ordered into self-isolation.

Canada’s Olympic Committee looked as though it forced the IOC’s hand when, on Monday Australian time, it suggested there would be no Team Canada if the Games began on July 24, 2020 as scheduled.

It was unethical, it said, for athletes to be burdened with the pressure of training for the Games when something much bigger was at stake.

“This is not solely about athlete health — it is about public health,” the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic Committees jointly wrote in a letter to Thomas Bach.

“The two committees are calling on the International Olympic Committee to postpone the Games for a year, citing the safety of athletes and the general public amid the COVID-19 pandemic.”

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Almost immediately after the Canadians’ letter was made public, Australia’s Olympic Committee issued a similar statement saying it had instructed its athletes to “prepare for the Games being delayed by a year”.

Team GB joined in. NZ followed. The Americans added their weight.


The Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games are being postponed until 2021 (Reuters: Athit Perawongmetha)

Twenty-four hours later, the IOC finally confirmed what Pound had already told USA Today — the Games would be postponed.

A year of tough adjustments

In a year’s time this decision will be viewed as an easy one when compared to a host of others that must now be made.

Organisers face unpacking years of detail, only to have to repackage it all in 12 months.

The Olympic Village, home to 11,500 athletes, was to be handed over to new owners once the Olympic and Paralympic games finished this year. How do they re-negotiate that?

Scheduling an Olympics in a crowded global sports market means world championships in sports like athletics and swimming must now make way for an Olympics in a non-Olympic year.

What of the athletes who’ve already qualified? Do those qualifications stand for an extra 12 months when others may be performing better by then?

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Merchandise will need to be mothballed and warehoused; tickets will need to be withdrawn, reprinted, and re-issued.

Will advertisers want their money back? As a global recession hits, will the sponsors come back in a year from now? Will some of them have disappeared from the landscape all together?

An historic decision

For the first time, something other than a world war has forced the Games to be postponed.

Tokyo had been awarded the 1940 Olympics and London was to be the host four years later, however both Games were cancelled because of World War II.


The last Olympic Games to be called off, in 1940, were also hosted by Tokyo. (AP: Jae C. Hong)

The Games have survived a terrorist attack and massacre, in Munich 1972, and Cold War boycotts in Moscow in 1980 and Los Angeles in 1984.

But the record books will tell how in 2020 the show could not go on as it had in the past because of an illness sweeping around the globe.

A costly decision

The Olympic flame had already arrived in Japan, with the torch relay, dubbed a “recovery relay”, due to begin in Fukushima on Thursday.

Ten thousand runners were to take a message of hope through more than 800 towns in all 47 prefectures, arriving at the main stadium on July 24 for the Games opening ceremony.

Earlier this week the Japan Times wrote: “Like ‘a canary in a coal mine’: Olympic torch relay could foreshadow postponement of Tokyo Games.”

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The 12-month delay is expected to cost Japan about $US6 billion ($10 billion), according to one Japanese economics professor, the only upside being it would cost more to cancel the Games altogether.

Tokyo organisers have already spent between $US12 billion ($20 billion) and $US26 billion ($44 billion), depending on which report you believe.

The price just went up at a time when stock markets have been going down.

Much of the IOC’s income comes from one source — US broadcaster, NBC.

In 2014, the network paid nearly $US8 billion ($13 billion) for the rights to six Olympics through to 2032.

It’s a fair bet Japan’s leader, Shinzo Abe, wasn’t the only caller for Thomas Bach in the past few days.

The president of operations and strategy for the NBC Sports Group, Gary Zenkel, was likely another.

He who pays the piper calls the tune, they say.

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(ABC News)

The decision to postpone is also an admission, of sorts

The Olympic movement has recognised it is not the main game right now.

It’s a position the IOC is becoming more familiar with.

As its supporter base ages it has tried to win over a younger audience, with the addition of a Youth Olympic Games and the inclusion of sports such as surfing, skateboarding, 3×3 basketball and sport climbing.

The younger audience will be another year older before the new sports make their Olympic debut.

Host cities no longer line up to outbid each other as they once did.

The youth of the world care more for social media than world records.

The world is changing; so too the Olympics’ place in it.

And now, much of the planet is in lockdown for a disease nobody had heard of before this year.

COVID-19 has hit Japan twice — first with the docking of the Diamond Princess, and now with the postponement of the Olympic Games.

For Tokyo, like many, 2021 cannot come fast enough.