It sounds preposterous in hindsight, especially now the Tokyo Olympics has joined the ranks of the sporting postponements, but barely a fortnight ago organisers could still see a rickety route towards hosting the Games in 2020.
Japan and China appeared to be over the worst of the coronavirus epidemic, so the thinking went, and most of Europe was still open. So a decision was made: to push on, to wait, to hope.
That hope continued to flicker, even as the World Health Organization declared a pandemic, major sports shut down, and more countries entered lockdown. The Olympic flame was lit on a still March morning in Olympia, Greece and Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, insisted there was “no plan B”. But on 17 March, there was a subtle, almost imperceptible, shift missed by almost everyone.
Speaking after chatting to G7 leaders, Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, said: “I want to hold the Olympics and Paralympics perfectly, as proof that the human race will conquer coronavirus, and I gained support for that from the G7 leaders.”
To most people that sounded innocuous. But in the IOC and elsewhere, ears started to tingle. It was not what Abe had said. Rather, it was what he had not. For the first time, Japan’s leader did not mention hosting the Games in July 2020.
From that moment on the decision to postpone the Games was inevitable, according to multiple conversations with those inside the Olympic movement about how the world’s greatest sporting event came to be put back a year. The big question now was when – and how – it would happen.
But it appears it was actually the Japanese who were the most reluctant to move the Games – while Bach was actively if quietly pushing for a postponement for some time. The problem was that the IOC could not move unless it got the Tokyo organisers on board. And that, to put it mildly, was not straightforward.
The greatest difficulty was that the Japanese could not be seen to lose face. Another was that organisers were keen on holding the Games in October, while Bach felt it had to be 2021 because there was no guarantee that the Covid-19 virus would be under control by the autumn. A third problem was that Tokyo wanted a four-week deadline to work through the issues – something the IOC reluctantly granted on Sunday.
But that did not stop Bach stealthily putting the wheels in motion to bring the deadline forward. It was not a coincidence that the Australian Olympic Committee was one of the first to call for the Games to be moved to 2021. The AOC’s president, John Coates, is a close friend of Bach – and chair of the IOC’s coordination commission for Tokyo. Bach knew he needed more negotiating cards. This was one of his strongest.
As Michael Payne, a former senior marketing executive at the IOC who still has close ties to the Olympic movement, explains: “The IOC was both officially and through its back channels clearly applying major pressure to get to a quick decision, because it realised that the delay was damaging to athletes and their preparations.” Payne, who handled the $1bn deal between Chinese group Alibaba and the IOC, adds: “But there was also a lot of political negotiations and delicate diplomacy involved to make sure the Japanese don’t lose face.”
That explains why the IOC was happy for Abe to “propose” a delay on Tuesday – which, of course, Bach quickly accepted. How could it not be, given the ever-sharpening criticisms from athletes who questioned why the IOC needed so long to reach a decision. Dina Asher-Smith, the world 200m champion, was particularly blunt: “Does this mean that athletes face up to another FOUR weeks of finding ways to fit in training – whilst potentially putting ourselves, coaches, support staff, and loved ones at risk just to find out they were going to be postponed anyway?”
Meanwhile, Dai Greene, the former 400m hurdles world champion, said he was having to flip tractor tyres on his partner’s farm and use bales of hay for box jumps because gyms were shut. “On Saturday morning, I went to recce the local 400m track by one of the private schools near where I live,” he added. “I even had a look at the fence and wondered to myself – can I jump over it?”
Greene was lucky. With Britain in lockdown, most athletes could barely train at all.
The Guardian understands the British Olympic Association also took a strong position in talks with the IOC last week. While offering its support for hosting the Games in July, it came with a heavy caveat: if British athletes were unable to train because of the Covid-19 outbreak, the BOA would publicly call for the Games to be postponed.
The BOA also increasingly felt that morally there was no way it could take a team to the Olympics in the midst of a pandemic. How, as one source put it, could they justify taking team doctors away from a national health crisis? Especially when its chief medical officer, Niall Elliott, was on the front line in Scotland?
A private opinion poll of more than 1,000 people reinforced the BOA’s position. It found that only 5% of Britons wanted the Games to go ahead in July. So what now? It is almost certain the Olympics – which will still be branded Tokyo 2020 – will be staged in July 2021, although some IOC members have raised the prospect of a “cherry blossom” Games next April. That seems unlikely. Would the US media giant NBC, one of the IOC’s biggest financial backers, really want a Games to clash with the latter stages of the NBA season?
It would almost certainly be easier to try again in July next year. World Athletics has already indicated that it will be happy to shift its 2021 championships, which are due to take place in Eugene, to 2022, and Fina, the organisers of the 2021 swimming world championships in Japan in July, has indicated it too could reschedule.
Of course there will still be major headaches – not least ensuring that venues can be freed up for whenever the Games take place. As Sebastian Coe, who ran the London 2012 Games and now heads World Athletics, put it after the IOC’s announcement: “There is no project management that challenges a city or country like the Olympics does,” and the cost to organisers from the delay is expected to be at least £2bn.
Some of the headaches, however, may not be as great as assumed. The IOC will still get millions in broadcasting and sponsor revenues so long as the event takes place, much of which it will pass on to the sports movement. And while there has been some ill-informed speculation about whether a new athletes’ village will have to be built, that is not a major concern given the 5,500 apartments in the village sold on to private owners for use after the Games do not have to be delivered to them until 2023 – and, as yet, only 500 have been sold. Meanwhile, among those in the Olympic movement there is a hope that the Tokyo Games in 2021 will become a joyous celebration of humanity and harmony after the devastation of coronavirus – much like the Salt Lake City Winter Games in 2002 helped America heal after September 11.
“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,” the IOC said in a statement.
Such pronouncements usually sound trite. But, in these dark and uncertain times, it struck pretty much the perfect note.