The Tokyo Olympics were supposed to open on Friday. The coronavirus pandemic changed all that, causing the first postponement of a modern Olympics (in this case, by one year). A Q&A on what changed in 2020 and what to look for in 2021 …
What led to the Olympic postponement?
As the coronavirus outbreak intensified in February, the IOC created a task force with Tokyo Olympic organizers, the Japanese government and the World Health Organization (WHO). On March 22, the IOC announced it would take up to four weeks to assess the pandemic’s impact on the Olympics, including a possible postponement. After an emergency IOC Executive Board meeting, the IOC, Japanese government and Tokyo Olympic organizers agreed on a postponement to 2021 on March 24. IOC President Thomas Bach cited information from the WHO about the virus’ global spread and an increase in travel restrictions.
Then, on March 30, the new Olympic and Paralympic dates were announced: July 23-Aug. 8, 2021 for the Olympics and Aug. 24-Sept. 5 for the Paralympics, each a 364-day postponement.
What are the plans for 2021?
Organizers are preparing different scenarios for the Games, including more than 200 possible ways of simplifying them, while noting it’s impossible to know what the world will look like a year from now. “We have to consider already now whether there will be measures necessary for access to Japan, for instance,” Bach told NBC Olympic primetime host Mike Tirico in May. “Do we maybe need quarantine for athletes from different countries or for all the athletes from all the countries? How can this be managed? Do we need special measures for access to the venues? How many people can access the venues? This is part of this mammoth task.”
On April 28, the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee president said the Games will be canceled if they can’t be held in 2021.
“[Japanese Prime Minister Abe Shinzo] made it very clear from the beginning that summer 2021 is the last option,” Bach told the BBC in May. “Quite frankly, I have some understanding for this because you cannot forever employ 3,000 or 5,000 people in an organizing committee. You cannot every year change the entire sports schedule worldwide of all the major federations. You cannot have the athletes being in uncertainty. You cannot have so much overlapping for the future Olympic Games.”
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How are athletes impacted?
Nearly all Olympic sports competition shut down by late March. Some have returned in socially distanced forms without fans, including the PGA Tour, the AVP (beach volleyball’s domestic tour) and track and field. U.S. Olympic Trials in gymnastics, swimming and track and field were postponed to June 2021.
Given the U.S. Olympic team will be more than 500 athletes (out of more than 10,000 Olympians worldwide), there will be those who would have made an Olympic team in 2020 who do not make it in 2021. About 74 percent of all Summer Olympians competed in just one Games, so even just a one-year delay is very significant.
Can older athletes hang on? Think Kerri Walsh Jennings in beach volleyball, Ryan Lochte in swimming and Allyson Felix in track and field. We already know it will create opportunities for athletes who had no designs on a 2020 Olympics, such as gymnasts who were too young to qualify by one year. Now, a group of U.S. women who turn 16 in 2021 can dream of Tokyo rather than waiting for Paris 2024. At least one U.S. female gymnast who turned 16 or younger in the Olympic year made each of the last 10 Olympic teams.
What happens next?
Tokyo Olympic organizers will spend the rest of 2020 developing core countermeasures for the coronavirus before implementing them in 2021. Specifics haven’t been announced.
A few key other storylines: The IOC is asking for athlete feedback on a longtime Olympic Charter rule restricting athlete demonstrations and protests on the field of play. The NBA’s to-be-announced 2020-21 season schedule — specifically how late the season and playoffs run — could dictate whether its stars participate in the Olympics. Christian Coleman, the world’s fastest man since Usain Bolt‘s retirement, is provisionally suspended for missing drug tests and could receive a ban through the Tokyo Games.
OlympicTalk will continue to provide the latest coverage of Olympic preparations and the resumption of Olympic sports competitions, including broadcast schedules for events on NBC Sports and Olympic Channel.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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