In a stunning but foreshadowed move, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced late Tuesday night that Japan had reached an agreement with International Olympic Committee chief Thomas Bach for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games to be postponed until next summer at the latest as the coronavirus pandemic continues to unfold.
Abe said he had “reconfirmed” with Bach that the games would not be canceled and that two had agreed “100 percent” to hold the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics “by the summer of 2021 at the latest.”
The announcement, which came after Abe’s call with Bach, Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee President Yoshiro Mori and Olympics minister Seiko Hashimoto, means the games will be postponed for the first time ever during peacetime.
Abe noted that the safety of both athletes and visitors to the games had played a major role in the decision to delay the games, and that it would be difficult to hold them at another time this year.
“Given the current circumstances, I asked him to consider that the Tokyo Olympics be postponed for about a year to make sure athletes from around the world are able to perform in the best condition possible and to ensure spectators’ safety and security as a host country,” Abe told reporters.
The prime minister also vowed to work to ensure the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics are held “in a complete form” as what he said would be “proof that humankind has conquered the new coronavirus.”
“Japan will fulfill its responsibilities as a host nation,” Abe said.
“Given that goal, we’ll be making adjustments about venues, and we understand that an IOC meeting will be held soon,” he added.
Still, despite anticipation of holding the games next summer, Abe’s announcement also left open the possibility of a spring Olympics, assuming the COVID-19 pandemic has been tamed by then.
In a joint statement, the IOC and Tokyo 2020 committee echoed Abe’s stance.
“The unprecedented and unpredictable spread of the outbreak has seen the situation in the rest of the world deteriorating,” the joint statement, released Tuesday night after the announcement was made, said.
According to the statement, organizers decided the Olympic torch should remain in Japan until the Olympics begin to “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.”
However, that optimistic tone was tempered when Mori, the Tokyo organizing committee president, said that the torch relay — which was slated to begin in Fukushima Prefecture as a nod to the Tohoku region’s recovery following the March 2011 disasters — would be canceled and rescheduled in accordance with the announcement of the games’ postponement.
Koike, speaking at a separate news conference, said the Olympics — despite being held in 2021 — would still be called the 2020 Games, adding that more details would be the subject of an upcoming IOC executive board meeting.
“Further discussion will be had to figure out how exactly this process will take shape,” she said. “Not only the construction of venues, but Tokyo, as the host city, has made many preparations leading up to this event.”
The IOC had announced on Sunday following an executive board meeting that a decision would be made as to whether the games would be postponed, canceled or held as scheduled within four weeks after further discussion.
And yet, just days later, the announcement was made in light of ongoing concerns that the quadrennial sporting event would exacerbate the coronavirus pandemic, which has spread to more than 170 countries around the world.
Koike said a cancelation “would have been devastating to the Japanese people.”
“I’m glad we can move in a direction that excludes that scenario,” she added.
The fate of the 2020 Games had been up in the air for weeks amid concerns that the COVID-19 pandemic could spread further if millions of visitors from around the world descended on the Japanese capital in July for the opening ceremony.
Though postponement will spur huge financial losses for Japan, the IOC and almost all stakeholders — not to mention the athletes — the decision was made to delay the games by a year in hopes that the pandemic has subsided by then.
But Abe and Koike could have their hands full even if the outbreak has been reined in time for the games.
“First and foremost, Tokyo needs to prioritize the safety of its residents and stop the novel coronavirus from spreading further,” Koike said.
Staff writer Satoshi Sugiyama contributed to this report