The 2020 Summer Olympics and Paralympics in Tokyo will be postponed by one year due to the global coronavirus outbreak, officials announced Tuesday, amid fears that the large gathering of athletes, coaches, and spectators from around the world could further spread the deadly virus.
The games had been scheduled to begin on July 24.
Speaking to reporters after a call with International Olympic Committee (IOC) Chair Thomas Bach, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he had proposed the games be delayed and that Bach was in full agreement.
In a statement, IOC officials said the games would be "rescheduled to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021, to safeguard the health of the athletes, everybody involved in the Olympic Games and the international community."
The leaders agreed that the games will still be called the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics.
The Olympic flame, which recently arrived in Japan, will also remain in the country for the time being.
"The leaders agreed that the Olympic Games in Tokyo could stand as a beacon of hope to the world during these troubled times," IOC officials said, "and that the Olympic flame could become the light at the end of the tunnel in which the world finds itself at present."
The historic decision marks the first time in the modern era that the timing of any Olympics has been impacted by anything other than war. The 1916 Summer Olympics were canceled due to World War I, while all Olympic Games between 1940–44 were canceled due to World War II.
The Olympics are just the latest in a string of events and international gatherings to be affected by the coronavirus pandemic, which has so far canceled or postponed parades, marathons, conferences, concerts, and festivals as people seek to practice so-called social distancing and avoid mass gatherings of people.
In the United States, the national basketball, baseball, and soccer leagues have suspended games, as has the NCAA March Madness tournament, while in Europe the Serie A football league and the Premier League have also stopped play.
But the Olympic Games represent the biggest sporting event to be impacted so far.
The decision will have enormous repercussions on the international sporting calendar — as well as the economy of Japan, which is estimated to have spent more than $26 billion in preparation for the games. Additionally, the international media market will be left reeling after selling billions of dollars in advertising tied to the games, while some insurers may face impossibly large payouts.
For weeks the IOC had remained defiant in the face of the pandemic, refusing to entertain the possibility that the games could be affected. “We remain absolutely in line with our Japanese hosts in our commitment to delivering safe Olympic Games in July,” the IOC said on March 12. That same day, the Olympic flame was lit in a traditional ceremony in Greece as a sign of “unified support for the Games" — albeit with no spectators present.
Japanese Olympic Minister Seiko Hashimoto had said that canceling or postponing the games was “inconceivable.”
The New York Times reported on March 5 that World Health Organization officials and representatives from the sporting federations had discussed the possibility of hosting the games but barring spectators, despite millions of tickets having already been sold.
But that still would have involved 10,000 athletes from around the world descending on Tokyo and living in the Olympic Village.
The first public crack in the IOC’s determined facade appeared on March 22 when the committee’s executive board announced they had stepped up “scenario-planning” for a possible postponement.
The IOC said it was asking for cooperation from Tokyo's organizing committee, the Japanese government, as well as a list of high-stakes contracts, brand sponsorships, and stakeholders to "start detailed discussions ... including the scenario of postponement."
The committee, however, adamantly refused to cancel the games altogether.
"A cancellation of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 would not solve any of the problems or help anybody," the IOC said. "Therefore, cancellation is not on the agenda."
Later that same day, Canada and Australia became the first two countries to announce they would not send any of their athletes to an Olympics held in July. Both countries called on the IOC to postpone the games for a full year.
“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,” Team Canada said in a statement. “This is not solely about athlete health — it is about public health.”
The contract between the IOC and a host city gives the Olympics organization the right to withdraw the games in the event of war, civil disorder, or if the safety of participants could be threatened.