Olympics: IOC finally listen to their athletes over Tokyo 2020 and not a moment too soon

The IOC are not alone in adopting a hopeful ‘wait-and-see’ stance similar to those of other governing bodies and governments in response to coronavirus but they are one of the last to heed the warnings

Vithushan Ehantharajah
Sports Feature Writer
Tuesday 24 March 2020 15:11 GMT
Coronavirus: How has sport been affected?

Exactly four months out from its original 24 July start, the Tokyo Olympics finally fell victim to the Covid-19 pandemic. Even as sense prevailed in a world more reliant on it than ever, the overriding feel was still one of confusion. What took them so long?

Officially, the postponement of the 2020 Games – the first such delay in 124 years – came about via a medium in keeping with these social-distancing times. A conference call between IOC president Thomas Bach and Japan prime minister Shinzo Abe set the wheels in motion for a rubber-stamped delay until 2021. Wheels that the IOC still had pointed towards Tokyo earlier this week with a view to reassessing in four weeks time. Now, said Abe, there was “100% agreement” on a one-year delay.

In truth, no other call could have been made and it is worth logging the “100 per-cent” there as a face-saving measure. Because after numerous objections from high profile Olympians and governing bodies, both public and private, matters had all-but been taken out of the hands of those in charge. That, the IOC hope, will be forgotten as the years pass by.

As ever in a world governed by out-of-touch administrators, actions ended up jolting them more than words. Without Canada and Australia officially pulling out of Tokyo 2020 citing their own public health fears, backed up by calls for reconsideration from the other Olympic committees of Brazil, Slovenia and Germany, along with World Athletics USA’s Swimming and Track & Field federations, along with the London 2012 head of health and safety, we might have had another month on inaction.

The IOC are not alone in adopting a hopeful “wait-and-see” stance, merely following other sporting bodies and governments in their hands-off response to coronavirus. But they are one of the last to heed global warnings, even later than the British government before Monday’s overdue lockdown notice. And given the nature of the event – competitors flying in from across the world, living side-by-side for a month among one another in a region still coming to terms with the virus – even suggesting it might still go ahead was hopefully ignorant and, at worst, dangerously negligent.

As welcome as this decison is, there will be sombreness among those due to compete.

The Olympic cycle is unforgiving and the graft by all is done with a view of peaking at the culmination of a four-year period that would have begun as soon as Rio 2016 closed.

Shifting that over by a year is easier said than done. At the very upper limits of human endeavour, even weeks have a toll on the durability of flesh and the robustness of the mind. For those near the end of their careers serious questions will need to be asked of themselves as to whether they can handle another 12 months of early starts, late finishes and the sacrifices that come in between. How many more times can they go back to the well?

The silver lining in all of this is for those who did not make the cut. Whether out of qualifying range or hampered by injury, Tuesday’s announcement will ring like a starter pistol in their ears. But even their ambitions will be tempered by coronavirus for as long as it tempers sport itself.

Undoubtedly, though, there is a sense of relief. For those in events whose pinnacle and credibility start and finish with the Olympics, the decision to participate this summer would have been unfathomably great. Make no mistake, their choices would have rested on weighing up which was worth risking – their livelihoods or their lives. In many instances, those two are one of the same, and it is important the choice was taken out of their hands for the better.

Without wanting to be cynical, you wonder if Bach’s newfound pro-activeness in postponing this summer’s games had anything to with his desire for re-election to stay in his post until 2024. After all, it was only when the objections of national Olympic committees were vocalised that this hurry-up came on.

Nevertheless, the economic hit Tokyo will bear will be allayed somewhat by knowing the boon will only be another 12 months away. Extending planning and clerical issues like hotel booking and transport after seven years of planning will require further cash injections which will no doubt be drawn from the IOC’s $900million reserves.

The knock-on effect will be to events such as the 2021 World Championships and, in turn, events that offer qualifying points for Paris 2024 which now fall within this elongated cycle. Points that may need to be used towards 2021’s Tokyo 2020.

There is still much to be sorted and further, tougher kinks to fix. It will all be for nothing, though, if the IOC does not learn from this episode. Not just to be more proactive but to remember to heed their own governing bodies and, most importantly, the concerns of their main attractions – the athletes.

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