The International Olympic Committee came under pressure to speed up its decision about postponing the Tokyo Games on Tuesday as athletes criticised the four-week deadline and the United States joined calls to delay the competition.
After Canada and Australia withdrew their teams, with the world hunkering down for the coronavirus pandemic, the US Olympic committee said postponement was the best way forward.
A growing group of national Olympic committees and sports bodies including World Athletics have called for the Games, set to start on July 24, to be pushed back, an outcome that now appears inevitable.
IOC officials are studying a postponement, among other options, but still believe a decision would be “premature” four months from the scheduled start. They will make an announcement within four weeks.
“My interpretation of the IOC’s communications is they don’t want to cancel, and they don’t think they can continue with the July 24 date,” senior IOC official Dick Pound told AFP.
“So you’re looking at the ‘P’ word — postponement.”
The US statement came after a survey of 1,780 US athletes found an overwhelming majority, 68 percent, backed postponement.
The virus lockdown has shut down competition, including Olympic qualifiers, and made training not just difficult but also dangerous, as athletes risk contracting or spreading Covid-19.
Several countries have imposed strict stay-at-home orders and international travel has been drastically curtailed as worldwide deaths surge past 16,500 and confirmed cases surpass 378,000.
“Our most important conclusion from this broad athlete response is that even if the current significant health concerns could be alleviated by late summer, the enormous disruptions to the training environment, doping controls and qualification process can’t be overcome in a satisfactory manner,” the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee said.
USA Gymnastics also said it was “adding our voice to the chorus advocating for postponement”, after USA Swimming and USA Track and Field had already urged the US Olympic committee to press for a delay.
Meanwhile, British Olympic Association chairman Hugh Robertson told Sky Sports News: “If the virus continues as predicted by the government, I don’t think there is any way we can send a team.”
With opposition to the July start reaching deafening levels, athletes questioned why the IOC needed weeks to come to a decision. The Olympic torch relay is due to start in Japan on Thursday.
“Such a response is unacceptable, irresponsible, and once again ignores the rights of athletes,” Global Athlete, an organisation which aims to speak for sports competitors, said in a statement.
British cyclist Callum Skinner strongly criticised IOC president Thomas Bach, accusing him of placing his own interests first.
“Bach’s stubbornness and arrogance has spectacularly failed in this instance and he has weakened the Olympic movement,” Skinner wrote on Twitter.
“This isn’t the first time he has put his own motives above the athletes and the movement.”
British hurdler Dai Greene said the “dither and delay” was “obscene” while Ed Warner, the chairman-designate of British wheelchair rugby, said the IOC had misjudged the mood.
“The IOC has said it will make a decision in four weeks,” he told the Guardian. “It hasn’t got that long. It probably has only got four days.
“The right thing for the IOC to do is to announce it will postpone the Games immediately -– and then use the next couple of weeks to decide when it will be. Athletes have led the way on this and the IOC have trailed far behind them. That has to change.”
World Athletics said it was prepared to shift its world championships, scheduled for August 6-15 next year in Oregon, to accommodate a potential Olympics next summer, seen as the most likely option.
But experts warn shifting the Tokyo Games, which are seven years in the planning and have a price tag of $12.6 billion, is no simple matter.
“It is mind-bogglingly complex to make a sudden change after seven years of preparation for the biggest sporting event in the world,” Michael Payne, the IOC’s former head of marketing, told AFP.