TOKYO • Amid a rising chorus by athletes, the general public and even United States President Donald Trump to delay or cancel the Tokyo Olympics owing to the coronavirus pandemic, Thomas Bach has continued to stand firm in his determination to hold the Games this summer.
Under normal circumstances, over 11,000 athletes, on top of volunteers, journalists, diplomats and fans would descend on the Japanese capital for the July 24 opening ceremony, kicking off the world’s foremost sporting competition.
These are not normal times though. The Covid-19 crisis has all but paralysed air travel, infecting 245,532 and killing 10,048 people globally as of yesterday.
There is no end in sight and the epicentre of the disease has moved from China to Europe, but with the Games still four months away, Bach, who is the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), feels that very uncertainty means any decision made now would be a rash one.
In an interview on Thursday night, he acknowledged the increasingly troubling situation, but expressed optimism infection rates might subside enough to allow the Olympics, which has only ever been cancelled three previous times due to the world wars, to go forward.
Bach said: “We are affected by this crisis like everyone else and we are concerned like everybody else. We are not living in a bubble or on another planet.
“Nobody today can tell you what the developments are tomorrow, what they are in one month, not to mention in more than four months.
“Therefore, it would not be responsible in any way to set a date or take a decision right now, which would be based on the speculation about the future developments.
“There are many different prognoses… This is why we rely on our task force, including the World Health Organisation (WHO), who are telling us it is too early to take a decision.”
Refuting suggestions that the IOC was out of step, given that all other major competitions have either been cancelled or postponed, Bach insisted the Games were unique in that “we do not need to clear our schedule”.
“I will not speculate, but we owe it to all the athletes, and we owe it to all the half of the world that watches the Olympics to say we are not putting the cancellation of the Games on the agenda,” he added.
FEB 27: IOC PRESIDENT THOMAS BACH
“The IOC is fully committed to a successful Olympic Games in Tokyo starting July 24.”
“I will not speculate, but we owe it to all the athletes, and we owe it to all the half of the world that watches the Olympics to say we are not putting the cancellation of the Games on the agenda.”
JAN 26: OLYMPIC MINISTER SEIKO HASHIMOTO
“We will continue our preparations so that the IOC can make sound decisions.”
MARCH 13: MS HASHIMOTO
“The IOC and 2020 organisers are not at all considering cancelling or postponing the Games.”
TWO WEEKS AGO: Games should go ahead (NHK survey) 40%
THIS WEEK: Games should go ahead (Kyodo News) 23%
ALLYSON FELIX, US nine-time Olympic track medallist
“It’s been pretty crazy, but we’ve just been trying to adapt to everything. Thankfully we have tracks that are still open. Our gym has been shut down, but thankfully I have a small gym in my home . I’m 34 and this my last go-round, so a postponement of two years doesn’t really work for me.”
KATERINA STEFANIDI, Greece’s Olympic pole vault champion
“We all want Tokyo to happen but what is the Plan B if it does not? Knowing about a possible option has a major effect on my training because I may be taking risks now that I would not take.”
Yet it is the big unknown – no one knows how long the outbreak will last and how bad things will get – that is preying on the minds of all those with a vested interest.
By the IOC’s accounting, 57 per cent of the more than 11,000 athletes have booked their berth at Tokyo.
That, however, does not reflect the reality for participants, as well as volunteers, whose training has been postponed to an as-yet-determined date.
Most teams secure slots for competitors first, then fill them later through trials.
For example, USA Wrestling has slots for athletes in 15 of the 18 Olympic weight classes.
The IOC counts that as 15 athletes qualified, but the body planned to award those slots to specific athletes at its trials early next month.
That meet was postponed due to the contagion and if it cannot be rescheduled, it will have to pick a wrestling team another way, according to spokesman Gary Abbott.
Hundreds of athletes, who had been counting on now-cancelled spring competitions to sneak their way into trials, have now been left in limbo.
To make matters worse, training has been severely curtailed because of social-distancing and lockdown measures, and sweeping travel restrictions.
CALLS FOR LEVEL PLAYING FIELD
As such, Swimming Australia yesterday called on the IOC to ensure there is “a level playing field” if the Games go ahead by taking into account the disruption caused.
It said: “At the heart of the Olympic competition is the notion of fair play – a value we hold very close, and we do not want that to be compromised.”
National coach Jacco Verhaeren yesterday told the Sydney Morning Herald that while “we keep preparing as if the Olympics are continuing, this seems worse (than the Zika virus that threatened the 2016 Games) and has definitively had more of an impact already on the preparations”.
Querying the merits of holding a compromised competition, the Dutchman, who guided compatriots Pieter van den Hoogenband, Inge de Bruijn, and Ranomi Kromowidjojo to multiple gold medals, added: “Of course you come across challenges, setbacks, injuries, illness.
“But this (Covid-19) far exceeds this. There is obviously a massive disadvantage for athletes around the world and whole countries that are not in a position to prepare themselves for anything, really.
“Everyone is for fair play, everyone is for healthy conditions the maximum, to the optimum… It’s hard to argue against fair play and health.”
DEFERMENT CALLS GROWING
American backstroke specialist Jacob Pebley agreed, calling on USA Swimming to postpone June’s Olympic trials and lobby for a postponement.
In an Instagram posting on Thursday night, he said: “I am deeply concerned by the IOC’s recent statement that they are essentially continuing with business as usual despite the growing evidence that Covid-19 will remain a massive threat for the foreseeable future.
“How can we, members of Team USA and role models for hundreds of thousands of young athletes, attend Olympic trials/the Olympics in good conscience?
“To do so would fly in the face of all emerging evidence and best practices for social distancing and protecting the health of vulnerable communities.
“USA Swimming has the opportunity to lead the push for the only moral option in light of this unprecedented situation.”
Olympic pole vault champion Katerina Stefanidi, IOC member Hayley Wickenheiser, Spain’s Olympic committee chief, Alejandro Blanco, and world heptathlon champion Katarina Johnson-Thompson all form the growing voices of dissent.
They spoke out earlier in the week – and their sentiments are being mirrored in Japan.
HOST AT ODDS?
The country’s politicians and organisers appear to be conflicted, showing more confusion over the fate of the Games.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has made clear his desire to hold the quadrennial multi-sport event in its “complete form”, without down-scaling or banning spectators, going against the current WHO advisory.
Yet his deputy, Taro Aso, has called the Games “cursed”, and Toshiro Muto, the chief of the local organising committee, has admitted no plans have been made to ensure the safety of competing athletes as “the situation changes every minute”.
The Japanese public, however, are not giving out mixed signals.
On Monday, a poll conducted by Kyodo News showed 70 per cent of respondents as saying the Games would not be able to take place this summer.
That is a sharp increase from the 45 per cent opposed to going ahead as planned when broadcaster NHK ran a survey from March 6 to 9.
The betting odds are also increasingly shifting towards the opening ceremony not taking place as scheduled, with bookmaker Paddy Power offering 4-1 against the Games going ahead on time.
For now, Bach remains undeterred, but the headwinds may be too much, even for him, to ignore.
According to Japanese daily Asahi Shimbun, Kaori Yamaguchi, a Japan Olympic Committee board member, will raise the idea of a possible delay during a board meeting next Friday because of the virus’ impact on the participating athletes’ regimen.
AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, BLOOMBERG, NYTIMES, REUTERS