It was the only call. But it was far from easy. On Tuesday morning the International Olympic Committee, in conjunction with the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee and the government of Japan, announced that the summer games, originally scheduled for July 24 through Aug. 9, would be postponed until 2021 due to the coronavirus. The official statement read, in part:
“The IOC president and the Prime Minister of Japan have concluded that the Games … 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 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.”
The Olympic golf competition, which was to have been staged at Kasumigaseki Golf Club on July 30-Aug. 2 (men) and Aug. 5-8 (women), joins the Masters, the PGA Championship and the ANA Inspiration among the prominent tournaments postponed due to the virus. The Olympic postponement, however, was not because of an increase in COVID-19 cases in Japan. In fact, according to U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee CEO Sarah Hirshland, the former USGA chief commercial officer, who has a daughter and a not quite 1-year-old granddaughter living in Japan, that nation is on the downside of the pandemic. Kids are returning to school; adults are going back to work, and life is inching back toward normal.
“The reason (for the USOPC decision to recommend postponement) was the focus on the ability for fair games to be conducted,” Hirshland told GGP+. “It was less about nervousness over the coronavirus (during the games in Japan) and more about what was happening now and the fact that the training schedules and doping controls and qualification processes just couldn’t recover.
“About 50 percent of our team has not yet qualified. To put athletes who have a chance (of being in the Olympics) on such an uncertain path, that became the nail in the coffin for us.
“Last Monday night we made the decision to close our training centers,” Hirshland said. “That is the moment when it became very real.”
Critics have suggested that the IOC dragged its feet. But this wasn’t like canceling a golf tournament or shutting down a basketball season. The Olympics is the world’s largest sporting spectacle, years in the making, the shuttering of which carries economic and social ramifications that are far greater than most people realize.
“Take accommodations, for example,” said Antony Scanlon, executive director of the International Golf Federation, the IOC-recognized representative body for golf. “We have 15,000 athletes and officials (from all countries) that were to be housed in apartment blocks (at the Olympic village in Tokyo). Those apartment blocks have been sold and were to be handed over to the new owners following the Olympic Games. What happens there?
“There are 50,000 hotel rooms booked for July and August and up to 60 percent of those rooms have been paid on deposit. How now can you adjust those when the hotels probably have other bookings for next year? What is the resolution to that?
“How do we get everybody (to and from Tokyo)? You look at the people who have booked airline tickets for those (2020) dates. What happens to them?
“Many of the grandstands were to start construction this week. What happens there?”
Scanlon’s point extends beyond just the construction of grandstands at the golf course and rowing venue. Procter & Gamble and General Electric have spent the equivalent of the GDP of several nations on the rights to sponsor Tokyo 2020. Those contracts expire at the end of the year. What happens to those deals?
“The virus was spreading so rapidly that it became more and more a question of whether the world could travel to Japan and whether Japan could afford, in the spirit of containing the virus, to invite the world.” – IOC president Thomas Bach
And hundreds of thousands of people were expected to visit Japan during the two weeks of the Olympics. Local businesses have geared up for years for the games. The economic impact of a postponement, compounded with the coronavirus, could prove devastating for a nation that has experienced anemic economic growth for the last 30 years.
“The virus was spreading so rapidly that it became more and more a question of whether the world could travel to Japan and whether Japan could afford, in the spirit of containing the virus, to invite the world,” IOC president Thomas Bach said in a media conference call on Wednesday. “On the one hand, we were confident that by adapting protective and mitigating measures, Japan, in four months’ time, would have been able to host the games. At the same time, our doubts were growing that the world would be ready.”
Athletes weren’t ready. One of the first things Hirshland did when she assumed the reins at the USOPC in 2018 was to open dialogues with American athletes, part of what she called “a servant-leadership culture.” Surveys were a big part of that cultural shift. So, long before the coronavirus outbreak, U.S. athletes had a pipeline to their organizing body.
When Hirshland’s team surveyed the 4,000 U.S. athletes who could possibly qualify for Tokyo, more than 70 percent wanted the USOPC to insist on a postponement.
“I was not surprised by that,” Hirshland said. “The entire sport community exists for the integrity of sport. If we ever lose sight of that we might as well take our ball and go home. Every one of our respective organizations across the entirety of the sports landscape is facing real and challenging business and financial implications (because of this pandemic). But in the last two weeks in the U.S., what we’re experiencing has become about something much bigger than sport.
“I’m incredibly proud that sport has stepped up and led. We have a bully pulpit and a loud microphone that we have to treat with respect because people listen. When it became evident that this was about more than sport, that it was about people’s health and safety, good on sport for stepping up and saying, ‘Let’s get out front on this.’ ”
Some may snipe at the IOC for being slow. But that criticism is as unfair as the games would have been this summer. Bach announced on Wednesday that Tokyo 2020 already has a task force to deal with the logistical, legal and economic issues associated with this postponement. Aptly enough, the task force is named “Here We Go.”
“This is like a huge jigsaw puzzle,” Bach said. “If you take out one piece, the whole puzzle is destroyed. Everything has to come together, and everything is important. That is why I really do not envy the members of this task force in their work. But having seen the professionalism and dedication of the organizing committee, which made Tokyo the best-prepared Olympic city ever, I’m really confident that we can face this challenge.
“The games have never been postponed before. We have no blueprint. Nevertheless, I’m confident that we can put this beautiful jigsaw puzzle together and we will have a wonderful Olympic Games.”
Top photo: Philip Fong, AFP via Getty Images
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