The International Olympic Committee will hold high-level talks on Tuesday, as doubts grow over the Tokyo Games and with some in Japan urging officials not to risk lives by pressing ahead during the coronavirus emergency.
While countries across Europe have gone into full lockdown after the continent was declared the new epicentre of the deadly virus by the World Health Organization, no decision is expected yet on a possible postponement, or indeed cancellation, of this summer’s Olympics.
The IOC’s executive board will meet via conference call to prepare an “information exchange” ahead of a series of talks with athletes’ representatives, National Olympic Committees (NOCs) and International Federations (IFs), planned for Tuesday and Wednesday.
The issue of qualifying will be a particular focus of Tuesday’s telephone meeting. The Boxing Road to Tokyo event in London on Monday became the latest qualifier to be put on hold.
Subsequent Americas and final world qualifiers, scheduled to take place in May, have also been put on ice.
However, the IOC told AFP its position “has not changed”.
“The numerous measures taken by authorities worldwide give us confidence and allow us to remain determined to organise the Olympic Games capable of bringing the whole world together in peace,” it said Monday, with the opening ceremony on July 24 just 19 weeks away.
The IOC also said it was “proud of the solidarity and the flexibility” shown by athletes, the international federations and the National Olympic Committees faced with the “challenges regarding qualifiers in several sports”.
The body said it was “closely cooperating” with all athletes affected and “is showing all the necessary flexibility to adapt the qualifying systems”.
Officials like Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and IOC chief Thomas Bach have repeatedly insisted preparations should continue to light the Olympic flame.
But with events from the Premier League to NBA basketball scrapped, and Japanese sport also at a standstill, even US President Donald Trump has suggested putting the Olympics on hold.
Japan has seen relatively few cases, with 814 testing positive and 24 dead. But some people on the streets of Tokyo voiced concern for the fans that would pour in from abroad.
‘Cannot sacrifice lives’
Koki Miura, a 27-year-old employee at an internet company, told AFP: “To be honest, even if Japan overcomes this crisis, we wouldn’t receive visitors from the world. I think we’d better not hold it.”
“We cannot sacrifice people’s lives for it,” added Miura, who said the Games should be postponed — if not cancelled outright.
Public opinion in Japan appears to be moving against the Games. A poll for public broadcaster NHK taken March 6-9 suggested 45 percent were opposed to going ahead as planned, with 40 percent in favour.
And a new poll of more than 1,000 people released Monday by Japan’s Kyodo news agency showed 69.9 percent of respondents believe Tokyo will not be able to hold the Games as scheduled.
Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike has said it is “unthinkable” to cancel the Olympics but the decision rests with the IOC. Bach has stressed the IOC will follow World Health Organization recommendations.
Masao Sugawara, a 90-year-old pensioner, told AFP: “Personally, I think it would be safer to postpone the Olympics for a year, just as President Trump said. Look at the panic.”
“Of course it would be disappointing, though,” he admitted.
Manfred Otto, 45, a half-Japanese, half-German lawyer, said he was “worried” about the Games and stressed: “We really need to be careful.”
“If the outbreak does not get controlled by June or July, I think we should postpone it,” said Otto.
The betting odds are increasingly shifting towards the opening ceremony not taking place on July 24. Bookmaker Paddy Power is offering 4-1 against the Games opening on time.
This comes as the virus — which has killed 7,000 people worldwide — shreds the international sporting calendar, with almost no elite sporting action taking place last weekend.
Sugawara said the magnitude of the coronavirus trumped sporting considerations.
“I am 90 years old. Except for wartime, I have never felt so worried.”