Japan Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s proposal of a one-year postponement for the Tokyo Olympics due to the coronavirus pandemic has been accepted by the International Olympic Committee on Tuesday, marking the first time in history that the Summer Games has been affected during peacetime.

The proposal was made by Abe during talks with IOC President Thomas Bach, Japan’s NHK public television reported Tuesday. It is an extraordinary move as the world battles the coronavirus pandemic.

“I proposed to postpone for about a year and president Bach responded with 100% agreement,” Shinzo Abe told reporters referring to Thomas Bach, head of the IOC.

The decision was confirmed by IOC in a statement later:

In the present circumstances and based on the information provided by the WHO today, the IOC President and the Prime Minister of Japan have concluded that the Games of the XXXII Olympiad in Tokyo must 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 move would be a devastating blow for the city of Tokyo, which had won widespread praise for its organisation of the event, with venues finished well ahead of time and tickets massively oversubscribed.

Abe had earlier said a postponement was unavoidable if the 2020 Games cannot be held in a complete manner amid the coronavirus pandemic, according to a report by Associated Press.

The IOC further added that the Games will still be referred to as Tokyo 2020.

“The leaders agreed that the Olympic Games in Tokyo could stand as a beacon of hope to the world during these troubled times and that the Olympic flame could become the light at the end of the tunnel in which the world finds itself at present. Therefore, it was agreed that the Olympic flame will stay in Japan. It was also agreed that the Games will keep the name Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020,” the statement read.

Pressure to postpone

Abe was to hold telephone talks with Bach on Tuesday after the IOC said it would make a decision on the Tokyo Games over the next four weeks.

The organisers have come under intense pressure to act quickly and postpone the Tokyo Summer Games because of the growing Covid-19 pandemic. Teams, athletes and sports bodies are all calling for a delay.

The United States became the latest contingent to urge a postponement of the July 24 start date, a day after Canada and Australia both pulled out and with Britain also expected to withdraw.

The virus lockdown has shut down competition, including Olympic qualifiers, and made training not just difficult but also dangerous, as athletes risk contracting or spreading Covid-19.

IOC officials are studying a postponement, among other options, but they have said a decision would be “premature” four months from the scheduled start.

“My interpretation of the IOC’s communications is they don’t want to cancel, and they don’t think they can continue with the July 24 date,” senior IOC official Dick Pound had told AFP. “So you’re looking at the ‘P’ word – postponement.”

Lockdowns across the globe are affecting 1.7 billion people, while coronavirus deaths have topped 16,200 with more than 377,000 declared infections in 175 countries and territories, according to an AFP tally.

The US Olympic team came out in favour of postponement after a survey of 1,780 US athletes found an overwhelming majority – 68 percent – backed delaying the Games.

“Our most important conclusion from this broad athlete response is that even if the current significant health concerns could be alleviated by late summer, the enormous disruptions to the training environment, doping controls and qualification process can’t be overcome in a satisfactory manner,” the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee said.

USA Gymnastics also said it was “adding our voice to the chorus advocating for postponement” after USA Swimming and USA Track and Field had already urged the US Olympic committee to press for a delay.

Meanwhile, British Olympic Association chairman Hugh Robertson said Britain is poised to follow Canada and Australia by pulling out of the Games.

“I think it is very simple,” said Robertson. “If the virus continues as predicted by the Government, I don’t think there is any way we can send a team.”

‘Stubbornness and arrogance’

The IOC came under fire for taking so long to make its decision after other major events such as the European Football Championships already announced postponements.

British cyclist Callum Skinner had strongly criticised IOC president Thomas Bach, accusing him of placing his own interests first.

“Bach’s stubbornness and arrogance has spectacularly failed in this instance and he has weakened the Olympic movement,” Skinner wrote on Twitter.

“This isn’t the first time he has put his own motives above the athletes and the movement.”

But Tokyo 2020 organisers point to the unparalleled complexity – not to mention cost – of shifting the Games. It is not even clear venues will be available and tens of thousands of hotel rooms will need to be cancelled and rebooked.

“It is mind-bogglingly complex to make a sudden change after seven years of preparation for the biggest sporting event in the world,” Michael Payne, the IOC’s former head of marketing, told AFP.

Squeezing in the 16-day Games into what will already be a hugely crowded 2021 calendar is another major headache, with arguably the two biggest sports, swimming and athletics, due to hold their world championships that summer.

However, World Athletics has already said it was prepared to shift its world championships, scheduled for August 6-15 next year in Oregon, to accommodate a move in the Games.

(With AFP inputs)