Even as the global sporting calendar had been swept away by the coronavirus pandemic but the International Olympic Committee, for reasons beyond the understanding of many, held back with the postponement of 2020’s biggest sporting event.

But, eventually, the decision had to be made.

Japan’s prime minister Shinzo Abe and the head of the International Olympic Committee agreed to postpone the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games by a year on Tuesday in an extraordinary move, unprecedented in peacetime, as the world battles the coronavirus outbreak.

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.

The Olympics, which has experienced boycotts, terrorist attacks and protests, but has been held every four years since 1948, would be the highest-profile event affected by the virus that has killed thousands and closed sports competitions worldwide.

The postponement of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics marks the first break in the quadrennial cycle for Summer Games since 1940 and 1944 editions were canceled because of World War II.

Only bowed to world wars

Since the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896, the only reason that a Games has been cancelled is because of the world wars. The outbreak of World War I saw the cancellation of the 1916 Games which were slated for Berlin while World War II accounted for Sapporo (winter) and Tokyo (summer) in 1940, and Cortina d’Ampezzo (winter) and London (summer) in 1944.

Since then there have been three major boycotts, in 1976 (Montreal), 1980 (Moscow) and Los Angeles (1984) but none was cancelled.

The 2004 Games in Athens was unaffected by the SARS virus of 2002-’03 while the mosquito-bound Zika virus raised concerns ahead of Rio 2016 before fading in the run-up to the Games.

Even after the global financial crisis of 1987 and the 1991 Gulf War, the 1988 Seoul and 1992 Barcelona Olympics went ahead. It took world wars to cause the cancellation of the Games, which the IOC has maintained is not an option for the 2020 edition.

“Cancelling or postponing the Olympics has an immense symbolic value,” said Nathalie Nenon-Zimmermann, head of Paris-based sports marketing agency Only Sports & Passion.

“We would be crossing into unchartered territory (if there was a postponement) – it would mean the Olympics are no longer immutable except for world wars,” she added.

Patrick Clastres, of the Centre for Olympic studies and the globalisation of sport at the University of Lausanne, said the four-year cycle of the Games was “as important as the principle of attributing the Games to a different city... it’s something that distinguishes the Olympics from other global competitions.”

The IOC has come under increasing pressure in recent days to postpone the Games, scheduled to start on July 24, with 1.7 billion people across the planet in lockdown to prevent the further spread of COVID-19.

Training has become impossible for many athletes and exposes them to the risk of contracting or spreading the disease. Competitions and qualifiers have been scrapped, while international travel is severely limited.

On Sunday, the IOC had initially given itself a deadline of four weeks to come up with a proposal to postpone the Games, a Herculean task that touches on every aspect of Tokyo 2020 planning from venues to security to ticketing.

But after Canada and Australia withdrew their teams and the powerful US Olympic Committee and World Athletics also joined the chorus calling for a postponement, the writing was on the wall for the July start.

Tokyo was spending some $12.6 billion to host the Games, according to its latest budget, and experts believe a postponement could cost it some $6 billion in the short-term before recouping it when they eventually go ahead.

It is also be a bitter blow to sponsors and major broadcasters who rely on the four-yearly extravaganza for critical advertising revenue.

It is not the first time Tokyo has seen unscheduled changes to the Games – it was due to be the first Asian country to host the Olympics in 1940 before pulling out due to international pressure over its war with China.

Huge burden

Hosting an Olympics requires huge investment by the host country, in facilities, transport and accommodation. For example, the athletes’ village, built to hold 11,000 competitors, is due to sold off as apartments after the Games.

“The Olympic Village is one of the problems among thousands of others,” said Jean-Loup Chappelet, a Lausanne-based professor who specialises in the Olympics. “But it will be up to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to release the necessary budget or to take legislative measures.”

Going forward, it remains to be seen how the organisers fit a rescheduled Olympics into a hectic sporting calendar. Smaller federations may be able to accommodate at short notice but bigger sports such as football, basketball and tennis may struggle with any shift in dates.

Broadcasters such as NBC, who have paid a substantial amount of money for the rights and have already sold over $1.25 billion of advertising, will also be distinctly unhappy about a postponement that forces them to put the Games up against other high-profile and profitable leagues such as the NBA.

World athletics chief Sebastian Coe admitted Thursday the Olympics could be moved to later in the year – although he said it was too early to make a definitive decision.

“Anything is possible at the moment,” Coe, a member of the Tokyo Olympics Games Coordination Commission, told the BBC when asked whether the Games could be postponed to September or October. “Nobody is saying we will be going to the Games come what may,” he added.

Olympic pole vault champion Katerina Stefanidi also said athletes were being forced to take health risks.

“The IOC wants us to keep risking our health, our family’s health and public health to train every day?” Stefanidi tweeted. “You are putting us in danger right now, today, not in four months time.”

(With AFP inputs)