Postponing the Olympics is a historic event — one that signals how serious this all is
Some of the sporting cancellations we have seen through the global COVID-19 crisis have been jarring because they were unprecedented. The latest one was a jolt to the system precisely because it’s not.
The Olympic Games have been called off before, but always and only for reasons that were both brutally drastic and comprehensively international. The Olympics went ahead on time through governmental disputes and following natural disasters, through the Cold War and Vietnam War, despite the horror of the Munich terror killings in 1972, through bombings and yes, even a virus, when Zika ravaged Brazil in 2016.
The only time they haven’t is due to World Wars, the two great conflicts of the 20th century cancelling three Summer Olympics and two Winter editions in total.
That’s how serious it needs to be. That’s how serious this is.
On Tuesday, Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe announced that the Tokyo Olympics will not be held this year, and instead will be pushed back to an undetermined set of dates next summer.
To safeguard the health of the athletes and everyone involved in the Tokyo 2020 Games.
The Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games will now take place no later than summer 2021.
— #Tokyo2020 (@Tokyo2020) March 24, 2020
Such decisions are not taken lightly. Tokyo was even one of those previously scrapped events; the Japanese capital was due to host in 1940 but gave up its rights two years ahead of time when its conflict with China broke out. Helsinki was named as replacement, only for the whole event to be shelved when World War II erupted and threw the world into tragic flux.
Just a few hours before the announcement from Abe, in the Fukushima prefecture of northeastern Japan, what few onlookers emerge from isolation were due to be greeted by a truly improbable sight.
The Olympic torch relay was set to embark upon its first steps in Japan — yet it was to be a torch relay without a torch, without any torchbearers, without the throng of roadside well-wishers, and with plenty of confusion as to why it was still taking place at all.
Meanwhile, things started to move rapidly in the corridors of Olympic power, piling pressure on the International Olympic Committee and Japan’s government that was too heavy to ignore and prompted the ultimate decision.
As we stand together to meet today’s challenges, we can dream about a wonderful Olympics in a beautiful country. Now is the time to support all those working to heal the sick and keep us all healthy. pic.twitter.com/RsLuidzeYw
— Katie Ledecky (@katieledecky) March 24, 2020
On Monday, Dick Pound, a senior member of the IOC, revealed to USA Today’s Christine Brennan that things had reached an inevitable phase.
“It will come in stages,” Pound said. “We will postpone this and begin to deal with all the ramifications of moving this, which are immense.”
Canada and Australian Olympic administrators had already stated that they would not send their athletes this summer and instructed them to prepare under the assumption of a 2021 Olympics instead. After USA Swimming and USA Track and Field expressed their severe reservations about the Olympics taking place this year, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee issued its own call for a postponement on Monday night.
Finally, the order to postpone was handed down, just a week after more bullish organizers’ predictions that things would go ahead as planned.
— Karissa Schweizer (@KarissaSchweiz4) March 23, 2020
Japanese chiefs have attracted some criticism for not acting sooner, but just as staging an Olympics is a monumental, years-long, nationwide, multi-billion dollar effort, so too is postponing one.
Logistical, contractual and television rights matters all come into play, and the cost of rescheduling will be enormous.
It is, however, the right thing to do. The world has, quite literally, come to a standstill. Untold numbers of athletes have been unable to train properly. Countless qualifying competitions have been postponed. Travel restrictions are still in place with no determined end date.
Perhaps most important of all is the consideration of what effect bringing together athletes, fans and staff from all over the world into one place, then sending them home again, could have on the spread of the virus.
There will come a time when things get back to normal and, when they do so, sports has the capacity — and perhaps the responsibility — to be a source of great catharsis. But the Olympics are too big a project to be left in limbo, and too much uncertainty still reigns for it to stay on the calendar.
— Pau Gasol (@paugasol) March 24, 2020
The latest decision is another reminder that things are so very different right now from anything we have experienced in our lifetimes, and hopefully from anything that we ever will again. For many who work in sports or even just love them, the Olympics have long been something to keep a macro sense of time by, metronomically arriving every four years, with the Winter Games sandwiched in between.
The Olympic are all about perseverance, overcoming obstacles, defying insurmountable odds and carrying on regardless. Not now, not this time. COVID-19 is an obstacle too great.
Just like we have all had to adapt to a new reality, so too must the Olympics follow. We will miss the Games and the ceremonies and the global camaraderie, for sure, as we miss all our sports, especially the rare cherished ones that define legacies and bestow greatness.
When The Olympics resume, we will be grateful, not just because absence made us feel more fondly but because it will signal a return. To how things were — and to how we like them to be.