Mar 23, 2020 - Sports

An Olympics delay due to coronavirus feels inevitable

Illustration of coronavirus arranged like the Olympic rings

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

The International Olympic Committee acknowledged for the first time Sunday that it may have to postpone the Tokyo 2020 Games — an outcome that once felt impossible but now, amid mounting external pressure, feels inevitable.

The state of play: The IOC set a four-week deadline for a decision and added that canceling the Games is not under consideration because that "would not solve any of the problems or help anybody."

Two countries are out: In separate statements last night, Canada and Australia both said they will not send Olympic or Paralympic athletes to the Games if they're held this summer.

  • USA Track & Field and USA Swimming — America's two biggest sports federations — have both called on the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee to push for a postponement.
  • The Japanese government has been steadfast in saying that the Games will go on, but Prime Minister Shinzo Abe admitted hours ago that a postponement might be "unavoidable."
  • More than 4,000 track and field athletes from six continents participated in a poll and 78% said the Olympics should be postponed.

Between the lines: Most of the concern surrounding the Olympics has been about the safety of the event itself, which would see thousands of athletes live in close quarters for weeks before flying back to their home countries.

  • Missing from that discussion is the topic of athlete training, which has been disrupted in almost every country due to closed facilities and other pandemic-related challenges.
  • 87% of track and field athletes in the poll I cited above said their training has been adversely affected by the coronavirus.
  • Team USA swimmers Katie Ledecky and Simone Manuel, who have 10 Olympic medals between them, were unable to swim last week after the Stanford facilities where they train were shut down.

The bottom line: Since the first modern Olympics in 1896, the Games have been canceled three times because of world wars (1916, 1940, 1944) but never postponed. That seems destined to change in the coming weeks or even days.

  • Should that happen, it's hard to overstate how many people and businesses would be impacted. Suspending the NBA and NHL seasons is one thing, but postponing the largest sports gathering on Earth is a totally different beast.
  • Whereas the NBA and NHL have a combined 1,222 athletes from 64 countries who play 81+ games annually, the Summer Olympics features more than 11,000 athletes from all corners of the world, many of whom train their entire lives for one shot at glory.

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