Postponing the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games for up to a year until summer 2021 was unavoidable given the growth of the coronavirus pandemic gripping the world, but it is a rational decision that will hopefully ensure fairness for all athletes taking part. Now efforts should shift to organizing the games next year in an environment that is safe for not just the athletes but all of the officials and spectators expected from around the globe.

Even as the International Olympic Committee said just last week that the games would go ahead as planned, it was becoming increasingly clear this would be impossible. The number of people infected with COVID-19 worldwide topped 400,000 this week — double the number of just a week earlier — and more than 20,000 people have died. There was no prospect that the pandemic would subside by July so that Japan, even if it manages to get its domestic outbreak under control, could welcome a huge crowd of spectators to the games. Following the decision, the World Health Organization said it had warned Japan and the IOC that going ahead with the 2020 Games would have exacerbated the pandemic even further.

Pressure from athletes and sports organizations worldwide was building on the IOC to postpone the games, with the national Olympic committees of some countries saying they would not send their athletes to Tokyo if the games were to start in July as scheduled. The pandemic has deprived the athletes of a chance to prepare for the games in optimum conditions. Other major international sports events have been called off, and the cancelation of qualifying events have left the selection of more than 40 percent of the roughly 11,000 athletes who are expected to compete in the Tokyo Olympics undetermined. Holding the games this summer would have been unfair as it would have deprived many athletes of a level playing field.

Still, the unprecedented task of rescheduling the Olympic Games — which have been canceled five times in their 124-year history, each time due to war, including the 1940 games that were to be held in Tokyo — will involve massive challenges. First among them will be making sure that the COVID-19 pandemic is contained by the time the games are held next year — a task whose accomplishment is far from guaranteed. The safety of the athletes, sports officials, spectators and everybody else involved from around the world will continue to be the priority in organizing the games.

The challenges will range from coordinating the schedules for other international sports contests set to be held next year, securing the venues for each of the events in the 2021 Olympics, re-arranging accommodations and transportation for participants and re-organizing tens of thousands of volunteer staff who will help run the games.

Ensuring fairness in selecting the athletes to compete in the games — if the process needs to be redone due to the delay — will also be important. Postponing the Olympics is expected to entail massive additional expenses to the tune of hundreds of billions of yen. Who will pay for this — and how — needs to be quickly determined.

The delay will push back the economic benefits associated with the Olympics. This will add to the woes of the Japanese economy, which is already being battered by the effects of the pandemic, including a nosedive in inbound tourism, and is widely feared to be headed into a prolonged recession. The government must take steps to contain the economic damage while combating the spread of domestic COVID-19 infections, including in Tokyo, which just as the postponement was announced was described as “at significant risk of further outbreaks.”

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has sought to hold the 2020 Games as a key legacy of his long-running administration, is believed to have taken the initiative for postponing them by a year. The IOC’s formal decision to put off the Olympics was preceded by an agreement to that effect between Abe and IOC President Thomas Bach — only two days after the IOC announced that it would reach a conclusion within four weeks. Delaying the games is certainly a better option than the worst-case scenario of having to cancel them. Whether the decision will lead to successfully holding the Olympics next year depends greatly on what Japan can accomplish in the coming months.

The Japan Times Editorial Board

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