The fate of the 2020 Olympic Games has been thrown in turmoil after Canada became the first country to warn it won’t send its athletes to the Olympics, unless they are postponed by a year due to the coronavirus pandemic.
The games are scheduled to be held in Tokyo between July 24 and August 9 but their fate appears increasingly in doubt as the world battles to contain the virus.
The Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) acknowledged postponing the Games would be a huge logistical challenge, but that public health had to be prioritized.
“While we recognize the inherent complexities around a postponement, nothing is more important than the health and safety of our athletes and the world community,” it said in a statement on Sunday night. “This is not solely about athlete health—it is about public health.”
The COC added that holding the Games as planned would be detrimental to the health of its athletes and families and potentially of Canada as a whole.
“It [holding the Olympics as planned] runs counter to the public health advice which we urge all Canadians to follow,” the committee said.
Shortly after Canada’s announcement, the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) warned its athletes to get ready for the Olympics to be held next year.
AOC chief executive Matt Carroll said the travel restrictions imposed by countries battling coronavirus would make it nigh-on impossible for Australia to assemble a squad in time.
“We have athletes based overseas, training at central locations around Australia as teams and managing their own programs,” he said in a statement. “With travel and other restrictions this becomes an untenable situation.”
Carroll’s stance was echoed by New Zealand’s committee’s president Mike Stanley, who hinted the country could consider boycotting the Games should they go ahead as planned.
“Athletes need a safe, and fair, playing field to compete and, right now, the widespread and evolving impact of COVID-19 is not allowing that to happen,” Stanley wrote in an open letter on Monday, in which he urged the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to “finalise their decision as soon as possible, bringing clarity to our sports and athletes.”
The three Olympic committees joined an ever-growing number of athletes and national committees demanding clarity from the IOC.
“Everyone has experienced unimaginable disruptions, mere months before the Olympic Games, which calls into question the authenticity of a level playing field for all,” Tim Hinchey III, the CEO of USA Swimming, wrote in a letter to Sarah Hirshland, the CEO of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee.
“There are no perfect answers, and this will not be easy; however, it is a solution that provides a concrete path forward and allows all athletes to prepare for a safe and successful Olympic Games in 2021.”
On the same day, the Norwegian Olympic Committee (NIF) urged Tokyo 2020 organizers to hold the Olympic Games only once the coronavirus pandemic is “under firm control.”
Brazil and Slovenia’s Olympic committees have expressed similar concerns and Britain’s sports minister Nigel Huddleston added his voice to the chorus on Monday.
“It is right that the IOC seriously considers postponing the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games,” he said in a statement.
“The health and safety of athletes, sports fans and officials due to work at the Games is absolutely paramount. We would welcome the IOC making a definitive decision soon, to bring clarity to all those involved.”
With the exception of the two world wars, the Olympics have never been canceled since they began in their modern guise in 1896.
Even at the peak of Cold War tensions, the event proceeded as planned. In 1980, the Moscow Games were boycotted by the U.S. and another 65 countries, before the Soviet Union returned the favor four years later in Los Angeles.
The organizing committee and the IOC have repeatedly and steadfastly refused to entertain the possibility of delaying the start of the Games or of canceling them altogether, but that stance appeared to change on Monday.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe conceded in a speech to parliament for the first time the Games could be postponed, if they can’t be held in its “complete form” due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If that becomes difficult, we may have no option but to consider postponing the Games,” Abe said, adding the current situation wasn’t adequate to the holding of a global event.
Just a few hours later, Tokyo organizing committee chief Yoshiro Mori floated the possibility of postponing the Games, suggesting delaying the event was one of the contingency plans organizers were considering and that a decision would be made in four weeks.
As of Monday morning, more than 1,100 cases of coronavirus have been reported in Japan, with 41 deaths and 235 people recovered, according to Johns Hopkins University which has been tracking the outbreak using combined data sources.
Over 14,700 people have died since the outbreak of coronavirus began in Wuhan, a city located in China’s central Hubei province, late last year. There are almost 340,000 cases globally, with 98,000 recovered.