The numbers Sunday morning were alarming.

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach had insisted for weeks that the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo would be held this summer as scheduled even as IOC officials monitored around the clock the spread of COVID-19 and consulted with the World Health Organization.

Bach’s position shifted abruptly as he and IOC officials reviewed the latest coronavirus tracking data Sunday morning.

“The situation changed very rapidly,” Bach recalled.

Bach and IOC officials were particularly concerned about the beginning of an outbreak in Africa. But it wasn’t just Africa. There were trouble spots all over the planet.

“We saw the dynamic developing in South America and in U.S. and in other countries,” Bach said

Bach called an emergency meeting of the IOC executive board for later Sunday to take the first steps on what he called the “roads to postponement,” a path that in less than 48 hours would lead the IOC and Japanese officials to take the unprecedented step of postponing the Olympic Games.

“What we can say is that it is an unprecedented crisis for humankind,” Bach said “We have never seen such a spread of a virus worldwide before. Therefore, it is also an unprecedented challenge for the Olympic Games.”

Bach on Wednesday addressed the challenge of moving the Tokyo Games from this summer to 2021 as well widespread criticism that the IOC should made the decision sooner.

“This is like a jigsaw puzzle putting together,” Bach said. “And every piece has to fit. If you take out one piece the whole puzzle is destroyed. Therefore everything has to come together and everything is important.

“I’m really confident we can also master this first ever challenge. The Games have never been postponed before. We have no blueprint. But we are nevertheless confident that we can put a beautiful jigsaw puzzle together and we’ll then in the end have wonderful Olympic Games.”

Putting the pieces together will be largely up to a task force formed Tuesday by the IOC Tokyo coordination commission and Tokyo 2020, the local organizing committee. The task force, Bach said, calls itself “Here We Go.”

But Bach and the IOC continue to come under fire for not acting sooner to the COVID-19 pandemic. Tuesday’s postponement announcement came more than a week after England’s Premier League and other top soccer leagues, the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball put their seasons on hold.

“That’s why it was surprising to see the IOC twisting in the wind for so long,” said Derick Hulme, an Alma College professor who has written extensively on the Olympics.

The IOC, Hulme said, has long been perceived as an organization that in times of crisis or controversy is seen “as reacting instead of acting. And other folks got out in front of this.

“Too often,” Hulme continued, “the IOC has been seen as reacting after the fact, that they can’t see what’s around the corner and this corner was not too difficult to see around.

“You would have liked to have seen the IOC first past the post, instead of last past the post.”

Bach, standing against the backdrop of ancient Olympia on March 12, insisted the Game would open as scheduled. He made the remarks at the Olympic torch lighting ceremony held behind closed doors because of the coronavirus.

“Nineteen weeks before the opening ceremony of the Games we are strengthened in our commitment by many organizations around the world taking significant measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus,” Bach said. “When the flame returns to Tokyo after 56 years, hope will light the way across the entire country.”

Last week with most of world’s sports leagues had shut down, the IOC said in statement regarding Tokyo “there is no need for any drastic decisions at this stage; and any speculation at this moment would be counter-productive.”

John Coates, an IOC member from Australia and chairman of the IOC Tokyo coordinating commission, told the Sydney Morning Herald last week “it’s all proceeding to start on the 24th of July.”

But there were beginning to be cracks in the IOC stance.

“I think the IOC insisting this will move ahead, with such conviction, is insensitive and irresponsible given the state of humanity,” said Hayley Wickenheiser, a four-time Olympic hockey gold medalist for Canada and an IOC member viewed as close to Bach.

Bach said Wednesday at the beginning of the COVID-19 crisis the IOC’s primary focus was on “whether Japan could offer safe conditions for welcoming the athletes of the world. At that point, we had growing confidence in the developments in Japan, seeing all the measures being taken, seeing the figures, and we had the confidence that, in four-and-a-half months, these safe conditions could be offered.”

But by Sunday the IOC was forced to change its focus.

“Then, we had this big wave coming from the rest of the world and these very, very worrying developments, in particular in the last few days. Africa is obviously at the beginning of the spread of the virus, and the World Health Organization said a couple of hours ago that Africa has to prepare for the worst,” Bach said. “We see the numbers going up in many other parts of the world.

“We had to see on the other side that the virus was spreading so readily that it became more and more a question of whether the world could travel to Japan than whether Japan could afford in the spirit of containing the virus could really invite the world.”

After Bach called the IOC executive board meeting Sunday he informed Tokyo 2020 organizing committee chief Yoshiro Mori, the country’s former prime minister, of the direction the organization was heading.

“Because we could not, you know, manage such a postponement without the organizing committee, without the full support of Japan,” Bach said.

Mori in the previous weeks had been steadfast in opposition to moving the Games. On March 12 he called any discussion of postponement or cancellation “outrageous.”

“We are not at all thinking about changing courses or plans,” Mori said at a press conference. “There is no plan now to change our plans.”

But as Bach briefed him Sunday, assuring him that cancellation would not be considered, Mori said Tokyo 2020 and Japanese officials were “ready to enter into discussion” about postponement. Mori said he would update Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe.

IOC executive board members during their emergency meeting came to the conclusion that the Games could not proceed as scheduled and postponement to 2021 was the best available option. By the time the emergency meeting wrapped up Sunday afternoon the coronavirus reports had grown worse.

“New alarming information was coming in,” Bach said. “We saw more and more travel restrictions. They’re coming up during the executive board that we also heard the virus start to spread on a number of islands in Oceania. The next morning, Monday morning, we received a declaration from the World Health Org which was pretty alarming where the director general said that the situation, the spreading is accelerating, that the director general of the World Health Organization wants to have an emergency call with the G 20 leaders to address this situation.”

Bach announced after the meeting that the IOC had set four-week deadline to decide on whether to postpone the Games. Bach and the IOC hoped the announcement would buy them time to sell postponement to the Japanese and solve the logistical puzzle the move would create. But word of the executive board’s decision on postponement stance traveled fast.

The Canadian Olympic Committee, briefed on the IOC executive board meeting, announced Sunday night that it would not send a team to the Tokyo if the Olympics were held this summer. The Australian Olympic Committee, also briefed on the IOC’s expected decision to postpone the Games until 2021, told its athletes to prepare for a Games in summer of 2021.

Olympic officials said Sunday (Monday in Asia and Australia and New Zealand) they expected the IOC to formally announce postponement to 2021 within a matter of hours. The Japanese Olympic and sports federation officials Monday morning shut what training sites and camps were still open.

Abe told Parliament Monday that postponement was “inevitable.”

A day later the IOC scheduled a call with Abe and Tokyo 2020 and Japanese Olympic officials. The IOC, Abe was told, wanted to make a decision on postponement.

“And then we started off this phone call where prime minister Abe himself in his introductory remark suggested postponement,” Bach said. “Then after consultation in this phone call we came to the conclusion that this must be a decision can’t be a unilateral decision of the IOC but must be a joint decision because in order to organize their successful Games we need to be in full agreement and need to be united.”

Bach dismissed criticism of himself and the IOC and said he has not considered resigning as some have suggested he should.

“No because this was the commitment and is the commitment to our Japanese partners,” Bach said when asked if the IOC should have postponed the Games earlier. “I tried to explain the focus was shifting.”

Bach and the IOC’s focus now turns to 2021 and a host of logistical issues ranging from the availability of the Olympic Village for athletes, and hotels for spectators to ticket refunds to will doping bans in place in 2020 still be enforced in 2021?  The IOC and many of the 33 international sports federations involved in the Games will have to work out qualifying processes for the remaining 43 percent Olympic participant spots.

Bach said the IOC will continue to honor at the 2021 Games the contracts of corporate sponsors that were due to expire in 2020.

He is less certain about the availability of the Olympic Village. The village’s 3,000 apartments, which were to host 11,000 athletes and 4,400 para-athletes have already been sold to occupants planning to move in after the Paralympics.

“Quite frankly I can’t tell you what the situation is,” Bach said. “This is one the questions of the many thousands of questions will have to address.

“We hope of course and we will do whatever we can that there is an Olympic Village because actually in the Village there the heart of the Games is usually beating. But we are at an unprecedented situation at an unprecedented challenge and I guess that this postponed Olympic Games will need sacrifices, will need compromises by all the stakeholders. We have to find the if we could have an Olympic Village in the traditional form because everybody who has once lived in an Olympic Village knows that this is the real Olympic experience. This is a once in a lifetime experience. Living under one roof with the whole world. Sharing your meals together. Celebrating together. Discussing together and forming this unique community.”

Even amid the uncertainty and criticism, Bach said he was confident Tokyo and 2021 would deliver inspiring Games.

“The significance of these Olympic Games I think can be very important because we all hope and this is what we’re working for that these Olympic Games,” he said.  “Tokyo 2020 celebrated in ’21 are already symbolic, can be a celebration of human kind after a having overcome this unprecedented challenge of the coronavirus and that there indeed that these Olympic Games and the Olympic flame can be a light at the end of this very dark tunnel human kind is going through at this moment which we do not know how long it is.”

 

 

 

 

 



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