In contrast to its firm stance of not long ago, the Japanese government conceded on Monday the possible need to postpone the Olympics as Canada and Australia pulled out because of the novel coronavirus pneumonia pandemic.
At a parliamentary session on Monday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said postponement of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics may have to be considered.
“If it is difficult to hold (the Games) in a complete way, a decision of postponement would be unavoidable as we think the athletes’ safety is paramount,” he said.
Abe’s comment came as the International Olympic Committee altered its stance. On Sunday, the IOC held an emergency board meeting by telephone, saying that it would decide within four weeks whether to delay or scale down the Games.
“A decision about a postponement today could not determine a new date for the Olympic Games because of the uncertain developments in both directions,” IOC President Thomas Bach wrote to the athletes Sunday, calling on their support and telling them that cancellation would have meant destroying their dreams.
The IOC statement on Sunday reiterated the position of Bach, that canceling the Games altogether was not an option, and it sought to address complaints that the committee had not been transparent in how or when a decision would be made.
Not long after the IOC announced its timeline, support for having the Games this summer continued to crumble as Canada and Australia said they will not send athletes to the Summer Olympics this year if the Games aren’t delayed because of the pandemic.
As of Monday, 187 countries, areas or territories were infected with the virus, with 294,110 confirmed cases and 12,944 deaths, according to the World Health Organization. Japan has reported 1,046 confirmed cases of the virus, including 36 deaths.
In a statement, the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic Committee said it was “urgently” calling on the groups that organize the Games to postpone the event for one year. “This is not solely about athlete health－this is about public health,” the group said.
In Australia, the country’s Olympic Committee also unanimously agreed that its team couldn’t be assembled with the virus continuing to spread around the planet. “It’s clear the Games can’t be held in July. Our athletes have been magnificent in their positive attitude to training and preparing, but the stress and uncertainty has been extremely challenging for them,” an Australian statement said.
As the IOC and Japan weigh postponement, but not a cancellation, world championships are most likely to be rescheduled. The announced time frame did not placate many, including Hugh Robertson, chairman of the British Olympic Association.
Robertson said four weeks was likely too long to wait. “We urge rapid decision-making for the sake of athletes who still face significant uncertainty. … Restrictions now in place have removed the ability of athletes to compete on a level playing field, and it simply does not seem appropriate to continue on the present course toward the Olympic Games in the current environment.”
China, on the other hand, expressed its full support for the IOC and Japan. “China’s stance on supporting Japan in hosting the Tokyo Olympics has not changed. And China, of course, will respect the decisions made by the IOC and Japan after their discussion,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said on Monday.
Abe said he thinks it is better to make a decision at an early date, adding that he will work with the IOC and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.
Also on Monday, Tokyo Olympic organizing committee President Yoshiro Mori hinted at a possible cancellation of the Olympic torch relay, which is set to begin on Thursday in Fukushima prefecture.
Mori said Abe is unlikely to attend the opening ceremony on Thursday, and a decision on whether to modify or cancel the relay will be made in the coming days.
Agencies contributed to this story.