TOKYO—The Tokyo 2020 Olympics were postponed until 2021 on Tuesday as the coronavirus pandemic spreads world-wide, an unprecedented shifting of the world’s largest sporting event that casts a universe of athletes, broadcasters, sponsors and sports organizations into a period of protracted uncertainty.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and IOC President Thomas Bach agreed in a phone call Tuesday to delay the Games, previously scheduled to start July 24, for around one year. No new date was set, and the postponement throws into question how athletes will qualify for the rescheduled event and what the newly rebuilt Summer Games might look like.
In the history of modern olympics, cancellation happened only in war times.
Although a joint statement from the IOC and the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee Tuesday said the Games “must be rescheduled to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021,” there are no guarantees that the Olympics could be held even then. The 1918 influenza pandemic, which killed an estimated 50 million people world-wide, lasted more than a year and included three waves, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The joint statement cited the World Health Organization’s assessment that Covid-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus, is accelerating, with more than 375,000 cases now recorded world-wide and in nearly every country. It added that the Olympics must be rescheduled “to safeguard the health of the athletes, everybody involved in the Olympic Games and the international community.”
The decision to postpone an event as massive, expensive and logistically complex as the Olympics will cause major disruption to a long list of constituencies.
Athletes’ yearslong training regimens, timed to peak this summer, will have to be replotted, and some may not be able to wait another year.
Questions include how qualification processes will change once a new plan is set. The three men and three women who qualified for the U.S. Olympic marathon team in that event’s Feb. 29 trials, for instance, must wait another year or more to compete in the Games.
Trials for the U.S. Olympic swimming and track & field squads originally set for June—with thousands of competitors and lasting more than a week each—must be pushed into next year. Organizers of the track trials indicated Tuesday they would stay in Eugene, Ore., but couldn’t say when they would be held. A statement from USA Swimming on Tuesday didn’t indicate what would happen to those trials, which had been booked for Omaha, Neb.
Broadcasters like NBCUniversal and
who together paid more than $1 billion to show the 2020 Games to audiences in the U.S. and abroad, will have their schedules thrown into chaos. Sports organizations that depend on the Olympics to fund their activities every four years will be financially stretched.
NBCUniversal, for example, was counting on the Olympics to promote and help drive subscriptions to Peacock, the company’s direct-to-consumer streaming service that is scheduled to launch nationwide in July.
The Japanese government and the city of Tokyo have invested $7 billion in the Games, including more than $1 billion on a new national stadium. Japanese companies, meanwhile, have provided over $3 billion in sponsorship toward the total Olympic budget of $12.6 billion. While costly, a delay would allow those companies to recoup some of their investment and give the stadium its chance for the spotlight.
American Simone Manuel, a four-time medalist at the Rio 2016 Olympics, said the IOC’s decision came as a relief during a time when training had been upended even for top contenders. After the Stanford University pool where she was training closed about two weeks ago as a virus precaution, she had been swimming in a nearby backyard pool.
“Obviously it’s a huge bummer but it’s the best decision for the health of everyone,” Ms. Manuel said. “I’m just glad a decision is made so that us athletes aren’t in limbo anymore.”
The agreement to postpone the Games ends a weekslong drama in which the IOC and Japanese organizers insisted the event would go on even as the pandemic gradually shut down much of the world.
The WHO declared the novel coronavirus a pandemic on March 11, and professional sports leagues and American college sports—including the NCAA basketball tournaments and the National Basketball Association—quickly postponed games and suspended operations. Nations closed borders, air travel dropped dramatically and nonessential businesses closed, including gyms and training facilities, as the international death toll from the virus rose.
But even as Olympic-trials events were postponed around the world and the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee closed its training facilities, the IOC maintained it was too soon to make a decision about the Summer Olympics, with the multimillion-dollar centerpiece event still four months away.
On March 17, the IOC issued a statement saying there was “no need for any drastic decisions at this stage; and any speculation at this moment would be counterproductive.” It encouraged athletes to keep training and said it was working with international sports federations to figure out how athletes would qualify in their sports after scheduled trials were postponed or canceled.
But calls for a postponement mounted. One of the first came from a member of the Tokyo organizing committee for the Games, Haruyuki Takahashi, who told The Wall Street Journal on March 10 that a delay of one or two years would be the best option if the coronavirus made it impossible to hold the Games with spectators this year.
In recent days, postponement calls came from USA Swimming and USA Track & Field, whose athletes combined to win more than half of the world-leading U.S. total of 121 medals at the Rio 2016 Olympics. National Olympic federations, including those of Canada, Brazil and Norway, called for a delay. The IOC on Sunday relented and said it would consider it; on Monday night, the USOPC issued a statement favoring postponement.
After the decision came out Tuesday, USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland wrote in a letter to American athletes that “my heart breaks for you” and others around the world, and that “the work of planning a new version of the Tokyo Games is now officially under way.”
The only postponements in Olympic history were for one day at the Munich 1972 Games, after terrorists took hostage then killed 11 members of the Israel Olympic team; and some delayed events at Atlanta 1996 the morning after the Centennial Park bombing, according to Olympic historian Bill Mallon. The 1916, 1940 and 1944 Olympic Games all weren’t held due to world wars.
The Tokyo Games were anticipated to be the largest yet, with more than 11,000 athletes from 206 countries expected to compete in 33 sports and 339 medal events.
One of the biggest blows of postponement for Japan will be lost revenue from visitors to the Games. Nomura Securities had estimated the Olympics would bring in around $2 billion in tourism revenue. Many companies had sought to take advantage of the wave of tourists, such as
which plans to open a theme park in the summer.
Spectators may also forfeit money spent on tickets. The terms of sale include a force majeure clause absolving the organizers of financial liabilities that covers public-health emergencies.
Get an early-morning coronavirus briefing each weekday, plus a health-news update Fridays: Sign up here.
—Benjamin Mullin, Alastair Gale, Joe Flint, Laine Higgins contributed to this article.
Copyright ©2019 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved. 87990cbe856818d5eddac44c7b1cdeb8