Updated at 6:13 p.m. ET
The Tokyo Summer Olympics will not begin in late July and instead will be held “by the summer of 2021,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced Tuesday. The delay comes after an increasing number of athletes and sporting federations called for the games to be delayed because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
It is the first time an Olympics has been postponed, though the games were canceled three times, because of World War I and World War II.
Abe revealed the decision to journalists moments after speaking by phone with International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach. The prime minister’s office said via Twitter that “the two have agreed that the Tokyo Olympic Games would not be cancelled, and the games will be held by the summer of 2021.”
The IOC and Tokyo organizers released a joint statement saying the games won’t be held in 2020 in an attempt “to safeguard the health of the athletes, everybody involved in the Olympic Games and the international community.”
While Japan has benefited from strenuous efforts to contain the coronavirus, the virus is spreading quickly in other areas. And health experts warn that it will likely be months before people can return to the normal routines of everyday life.
“The unprecedented and unpredictable spread of the outbreak has seen the situation in the rest of the world deteriorating,” the IOC and Tokyo organizers said.
Until this week, Olympic organizers had insisted that the Tokyo Games would go on as planned, dismissing any talk of forming contingency plans for dealing with a deadly respiratory disease that is now found in nearly every country in the world.
It wasn’t until Sunday, Tokyo organizers said, that they “agreed to proceed with detailed discussions of different scenarios, including postponement.” But from there, the situation changed very quickly. On Monday, Tokyo officials warned that a final decision might not emerge for up to four weeks. By the next day, however, the fate of the 2020 Games was sealed.
The Tokyo Olympics had been scheduled to start in about 120 days. But Abe and Bach concluded that it must be rescheduled to a date beyond 2020, citing the most recent updates from the World Health Organization.
“The pandemic is accelerating,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said on Monday. When Tedros spoke, the number of coronavirus cases worldwide had recently shot past 300,000. As of Tuesday morning ET, that figure was already closing in on 400,000 and at least 17,000 people had died from COVID-19.
In announcing the decision to delay the Tokyo Games, the organizers said the Olympic flame — which recently reached Japan after being lit in Greece — will remain in Japan until the postponed games are held.
They also said the name of the games — which is plastered on signs, toys and all manner of branded materials — will not change. Despite being held in 2021, the upcoming Olympics will retain the formal title of “Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.”
The organizers say they hope that eventually, “the Olympic flame could become the light at the end of the tunnel in which the world finds itself at present.”
In addition to the potential risks to public safety that massive Olympics crowds would entail at a time when a pandemic is raging, athletes in many countries have seen their training disrupted or interrupted. The coronavirus has also forced a number of high-profile qualifying competitions to be canceled or postponed.
The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee joined those calling for a postponement, releasing a statement saying that after speaking with athletes on the team, the committee had concluded that “the enormous disruptions to the training environment, doping controls and qualification process can’t be overcome in a satisfactory manner.”
The U.S. committee urged the IOC to ensure that the Tokyo Games are “conducted under safe and fair conditions for all competitors.”
The postponement of the quadrennial competition was also hailed by the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), which called the decision “sensible.”
“The health and safety of the athletes remains the number-one priority for WADA and the anti-doping community,” WADA President Witold Bańka declared in a press release, “and it is clear that the correct decision has been taken in this challenging and unprecedented situation.”
But he also noted that the coronavirus pandemic could complicate ongoing anti-doping monitoring.
“It is clear that there are a number of challenges being faced related to the testing of athletes at this time,” Bańka said. “WADA is working closely with Anti-Doping Organizations, athletes and other stakeholders to ensure the integrity of the global anti-doping program is maintained as far as possible during this time and to ensure that the system returns to full power as quickly and effectively as possible once this crisis has abated.”
Others voiced concerns about athletes who have been sanctioned for doping violations. Those who were banned from competing this summer might complete their penalties before the games do take place. Because there is currently no provision to extend such bans if the games are postponed, those athletes may insist on being allowed to compete.
“This was an issue raised on a call of national anti-doping agencies from 21 countries today,” Reuters quotes United States Anti-Doping Agency CEO Travis Tygart as saying. “It is one of many complex issues that will have to be thought through and determined now that the Games have been postponed.”