Japan on Wednesday started the unprecedented task of reorganizing the Tokyo Olympics after the historic decision to postpone the world’s biggest sporting event due to the coronavirus pandemic that has locked down one-third of the planet.
The dramatic step to shift the games a year had never before been seen in peacetime, and the postponement upends every aspect of the organization — including venues, security, ticketing and accommodation.
“It’s like taking seven years to build the world’s biggest jigsaw puzzle and, with just one piece to go, having to start again but now with less time to finish,” tweeted Craig Spence, spokesman for the International Paralympic Committee.
It is not even clear exactly when the rescheduled games will take place, with the International Olympic Committee saying the new date would be “beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021.”
Japan had always framed Tokyo 2020 as the “Recovery Games” — a chance to show the world it had bounced back from the “triple disaster” in 2011, when a massive earthquake sparked a tsunami and the Fukushima nuclear meltdown.
The delayed event — still to be called Tokyo 2020 — will now be a “testament to mankind’s defeat of the new virus,” said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
The games could stand as a “beacon of hope to the world during these troubled times” and the Olympic flame “could become the light at the end of the tunnel in which the world finds itself at present,” Japan and the IOC said in their joint statement.
The Olympics, which in the past has weathered boycotts, terrorist attacks and protests, is the highest-profile event affected by the new coronavirus that has killed thousands and postponed or canceled sports competitions worldwide.
The IOC had come under fire for appearing out of touch by sticking to its schedule, but it eventually bowed to the inevitable, citing the need to protect the health of athletes.
Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, said the postponement was “about protecting human life,” with more than 11,000 athletes expected at the games, along with 90,000 volunteers and hundreds of thousands of officials and spectators from all over the world.
U.S. swimming star Ryan Lochte summed up the combination of disappointment and relief expressed by most athletes, after many had voiced anger at being asked to continue training during the pandemic.
“I was a little pissed off because I’ve been training my butt off and I’ve been feeling great,” the 12-time Olympic medalist told the Los Angeles Times. “But this whole thing is way bigger than me. It’s way bigger than the Olympians — it’s affecting the entire world right now.”
There were similar feelings on the streets of Tokyo, which had won widespread praise for its preparations, with tickets selling quickly and venues completed well ahead of schedule.
The Olympic rings are up and the cute wide-eyed mascots are plastered across billboards and commuter trains all over the city, but most people in the metropolis said sense had prevailed.
“It is disappointing, for sure, but when you think about the health of athletes as well as spectators, I understand,” IT engineer Momoko Doku said at the bustling Shibuya crossing. “The new coronavirus is spreading so fast in the world, and this is a very serious issue internationally.”
Japanese media were also broadly supportive, although the Tokyo Shimbun daily screamed “surprise and embarrassment.”
“It is like all the efforts of the last seven years are back to square one,” the Nikkei business daily said.
The Olympic torch relay, due to begin from Fukushima on Thursday, has been scrapped, but the flame will stay in the area until it is safe to begin.
And organizers now have to wrestle with a host of unanswered questions: Are the venues still available? What to do with ticket holders and volunteers? How to fit the games into a crowded 2021 sporting schedule?
The athletes village was to be renovated into more than 4,000 luxury apartments for sale, with hundreds already snapped up. Tens of thousands of hotel rooms will need to be canceled and re-booked.
Japan and the organizing committee were spending $12.6 billion on the games, and experts say they may need to spend around half that again to rearrange the event — before hopefully recouping the losses when the Olympics are held.
Tokyo 2020 President Yoshiro Mori, an 82-year-old former prime minister, pointed to his own health battles as inspiration for the difficult times ahead.
“We have no choice but to have hope. I myself suffered cancer. … But I was saved by a new drug. I am here, allowed to live.
“Let us hope for these things.”