In a move that seemed inevitable and has been almost universally praised, the prime minister of Japan, Shinzo Abe, and the president of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, announced on Tuesday that the Olympic Games, originally scheduled for this summer in Tokyo, have been postponed until 2021 because of the coronavirus global pandemic.
“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,” a statement from the IOC and Tokyo organizing committee read.
“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.”
This decision was not reached lightly. Members of the U.S. Olympic Committee told LPGA.com that this wasn’t as simple as just stopping everything in place and picking back up a year from now. Athlete housing in the Olympic village, for example, is made up of condominiums that have been sold to private owners who are scheduled to assume occupancy in the future.
“I cannot tell you what the situation is (with the Olympic village) at the moment,” IOC president Thomas Bach said during a media conference call on Wednesday. Nor did Bach mention the many hotels that were to house the hundreds of thousands of people coming to Tokyo, which are now booked with other groups through summer 2021, or the state of the competition venues that were slated to host other events or be repurposed after the Games.
He did, however, say that the Tokyo organizing committee had established a task force, aptly named Here We Go, to tackle these and many other issues.
“These are among the many thousands of questions the task force will have to address,” Bach said. “We are in an unprecedented situation with an unprecedented challenge. These postponed Olympic Games will require sacrifices and compromises by all stakeholders.
“This is like a huge jigsaw puzzle. 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 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.”
Bach emphasized that the athletes voices were always at the forefront in the decision-making process. In golf, many of those voices agreed with the decision. Inbee Park, the 2016 women’s golf gold medalist, said, “It was a good decision to postpone the Olympics. Considering the athletes who prepared, it’s a relief that it was a postponement and not a cancellation.
Stacy Lewis, who represented the United States at the 2016 Games in Rio de Janeiro, said of the postponement, “It was the only decision (the IOC) could make under the circumstances. (Postponement) was the smart thing to do for the athletes and the fans, the only thing to do, really. People couldn’t qualify, couldn’t train. You have countries trying to fill out teams and nobody can get out right now. So, pushing it back to 2021 is the right call, the only call.”
While the IOC, and particularly the Japan organizing committee, should be commended for making the right decision despite the spate of hurtles that must be jumped in the next 16 to 18 months, it was the athletes who spearheaded the effort.
Surveys conducted by the USOC indicated that upward of 70% of American athletes wanted the games postponed. Many training facilities have been closed due to the coronavirus and with the spread coming at different times and different speeds throughout the world, a level playing field for training simply could not be met.
“It is important to note that there was not a single voice asking for the cancellation of the Games,” Bach said. “The questions centered around the qualifications systems, the training conditions, mental health and others. So, we took all this into consideration and we also took into consideration the many voices of athletes we heard from around the world.”
LPGA players who participated in the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio recognize that while the decision was difficult, postponement was the right call.
“This is the safest decision (the IOC) could make, not just for the athletes but also for the spectators and the workers and everyone involved,” 2016 silver medalist Lydia Ko told LPGA.com. “The top athletes will still be around in 2021 and they will be able to qualify and compete without worrying about this virus and without being distracted.”
And when those athletes eventually walk into the Olympic stadium in Tokyo, they will be in for the most thrilling event of their lives.
“Being an Olympian was one of the greatest and most unforgettable weeks of my life, in or out of golf,” Ko said. “It’s the biggest event in the world to participate in as an athlete and to be a part of it was incredibly special.
“I’d grown up watching the Olympics and admiring all the athletes and I’d always thought, wow, it would be great if golf was in the Olympics so I could be a part of that. And when it happened, I wanted to do whatever it took to be there. That’s what it means to be a part of it.
“Watching the other medal ceremonies, and all the medal ceremonies are the same, and to see that and then to be a part of it by winning the silver medal, it was the best second (place finish) ever.”
Lewis agreed, saying, “More than anything I liked being around the other athletes and being involved in the closing ceremonies. Being fitted for the clothing and walking into the stadium with everybody, that was a really cool experience. Once we were inside the ropes, it was golf. But when you do it, when you experience (an Olympic Games), there’s really nothing else like it.
“We got (to Rio) when the guys were finishing up (the men’s golf competition), and to get the see the medal ceremony and get to experience that aspect of it, for me, that’s when it became real.
“I played every morning about 10:00 so when we were done, we were off to other events. So, I didn’t get a lot of rest that week, but I wouldn’t trade that experience for anything. To be a part of it was really something special.”
It will be something special again for those who qualify. It will just come a year later than expected.