Relief and sadness as Tokyo Olympic Games postponed to 2021

Sporting bodies, athletes welcome decision to postpone Summer Games by a year as coronavirus pandemic accelerates.

    The Tokyo Olympic Games have been postponed to 2021 due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, the first such delay in the Games' 124-year modern history, as the global outbreak of COVID-19 has wreaked havoc on the international sporting calendar.

    The International Olympic Committee (IOC) made the decision on Tuesday after speaking with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and local organisers, ending weeks of speculation and uncertainty about the Summer Games - initially scheduled to kick off in July.

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    "The unprecedented and unpredictable spread of the outbreak has seen the situation in the rest of the world deteriorating," IOC and Tokyo 2020 organisers said in joint statement

    "The Games ... in Tokyo 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," it added.

    Before the official announcement, Abe said IOC President Thomas Bach had agreed to his proposal for a one-year postponement.

    "President Bach said he will agree '100%,' and we agreed to hold the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics in the summer of 2021 at the latest," Abe said, saying holding the games next year would be "proof of a victory by human beings against the coronavirus infections."

    On Sunday, Bach said a decision on postponing the games would be made in the next four weeks. But pressure grew as national federations, sport governing bodies and athletes spoke out against having the opening ceremony as planned on July 24.

    The decision came only a few hours after local organizers said the torch relay would start as planned on Thursday. It was expected to start in northeast Fukushima prefecture, but with no torch, no torchbearers and no public. Those plans also changed.

    "For the time being, the flame will be stored and displayed in Fukushima," organising committee President Yoshiro Mori said.

    'Common sense prevails'

    The postponement marks the first break in the four-year cycle for the Summer Olympic Games since the 1940 and 1944 Games were cancelled because of World War II. 

    The coronavirus pandemic has already forced the postponement and cancellation of dozens of sporting events, including Olympic qualifiers.

    As of Tuesday, more than 17,200 people had died from COVID-19 and 396,000 infected in almost 190 countries, according to data collected by Johns Hopkins University.

    Al Jazeera's sports correspondent Lee Wellings said: "Common sense has prevailed," but the delay in the announcing the decision caused "some uncertainty and anxiety."

    "This is a time where people need some certainty and there will be a huge sense of relief among athletes, and everybody involved," he added. 

    Athletes, national associations and sporting federations from around the world reacted with a mixture of sadness, relief and goodwill to the postponement. 

    "It is the right decision," Lani Belcher, a British canoeist and Olympic athlete, told Al Jazeera.

    "Now that a formal decision has been made it allows the athletes to be able to go back to the drawing board with their coaches and support staff and really prepare properly for the Olympic Games," she added. 

    In a message to athletes, the US Olympic and Paralympic CEO Sarah Hirshland said: "My heart breaks for you, your fellow athletes around the world, our friends at Tokyo 2020, the people of Japan, and all who are impacted by this global pandemic and the decision to postpone the Tokyo Games 2020.

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    "This summer was supposed to be a culmination of your hard work and life's dream, but taking a step back from competition to care for our communities and each other is the right thing to do. Your moment will wait until we can gather again safely."

    On Monday, Canada became the first country to withdraw its team from the Olympic Games.

    After the IOC announcement, Canada's Olympic wrestling champion Erica Wiebe said: "Utter relief. Excitement. Uncertainty. We're in unprecedented times. We'll be more ready than ever in 2021 and wearing the maple leaf with more pride than I thought possible."

    Andy Anson, CEO of British Olympic Association (BOA), expressed "profound sadness" at the postponement, but said: "In all consciousness, it is the only decision we can support, in light of the devastating impact COVID-19."

    Athletics Kenya President Jackson Tuwei said: "It is good, at least it is now clear. When things were not very clear, it was difficult to advise the athletes what to do. Sometimes when you prepare and nothing happens, it is also very demoralising."

    What's next?

    Japan had warned that putting off the Games would put its $12bn investment at risk.

    Organisers will now have to figure out how to keep things running for another year while making sure venues are up to date for another 12 months.

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    Toshiro Muto, the CEO of the organising committee, said he still has not worked out how much the delay will cost or who will pay. 

    "A lot can happen in one year, so we have to think about what we have to do," he said. "The decision came upon us all of a sudden."

    In its statement, the IOC said it would keep the same name for next year's event: "Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020."

    In a crowded sporting calendar, which will be making up for this year's cancellations, World Athletics said it was willing to move its world championships, scheduled for August 6-15, 2021, in Oregon, to clear a path for the Olympic Games.

    The exact dates for the month-long Games have yet to be announced. 

    "It's unclear whether the Olympics are going to be held in that exact slot of 2020 moved forward a year," said Al Jazeera's Wellings.

    "There's also a chance it may be moved forward and be called a cherry blossom Games in spring."

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera and news agencies