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United States joins in urging 2020 Olympics in Tokyo to be postponed

IOC president Thomas Bach.
IOC president Thomas Bach.Laurent Gillieron/Associated Press

The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee is urging the Summer Olympics in Tokyo be postponed, adding its large and influential voice to a growing chorus of athletes and sports federations objecting to having the games during the coronavirus pandemic.

The International Olympic Committee said Sunday it would make a decision on postponing or altering the games within four weeks.

But that timeline has been met with skepticism and derision, with Canada’s Olympic committee saying it would not send its athletes this summer and the Australia committee telling its athletes to plan for an Olympics in 2021. Surveys of athletes are showing that most favor a postponement, because it is getting increasingly difficult to train as countries impose broad restrictions on movement and shut down gyms and other facilities.

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The US committee, representing the largest delegation of athletes at the games, said in a statement from its chairwoman, Susanne Lyons, and chief executive, Sarah Hirshland, that it had made the decision after hearing from 1,780 American athletes.

"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 statement said. "To that end, it’s more clear than ever that the path toward postponement is the most promising, and we encourage the IOC to take all needed steps to ensure the games can be conducted under safe and fair conditions for all competitors.”

With the US now urging a postponement, pressure is likely to increase on the IOC to act soon.

Already, athletes, medical experts and others involved in the sporting world are pressing for a quicker end to the uncertainty.

For medical experts and governments throughout the world, a firm decision to postpone would allow them to focus on the more immediate worry — containing the pandemic — rather than the games themselves.

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For athletes, many of whom have pushed for a postponement, a decision now would take away the pressure of seeking ways to train in an era of social distancing.

USA Gymnastics on Monday also joined the calls for a postponement, following national leaders in swimming and track and field who have done the same. The three sports typically combine to deliver the most medals for the US each Summer Olympics.

Li Li Leung, chief executive of USA Gymnastics, said her federation’s decision was based on an anonymous survey of its athletes, in which nearly two-thirds of respondents said they favored delaying the games for at least three months.

"It was really important for us to make sure our athletes’ voices were heard in this,” Leung told reporters during a conference call, adding that the athletes wanted to compete fairly without posing a health risk to others.

The IOC and Tokyo, however, need their decision to come in a way that resolves billions of dollars in financial implications.

"The bottom line is if the IOC or Tokyo unilaterally decide to cancel or postpone without agreement, they would be in breach of contract and the potential financial repercussions are just enormous,” said John Mehrzad, a British sports lawyer who has represented national and international sports federations and athletes in litigation.

"As every day goes by and they don’t make a decision and other countries pull athletes out and the result of that means they can’t go ahead, then both parties will be delighted because it wouldn’t be their fault,” Mehrzad said. "If people try to sue them, they can blame factors out of control for why it isn’t taking place.”

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A firm decision may come soon enough; Dick Pound, an IOC member, said Monday that the games would clearly not start as scheduled.

"On the basis of the information the IOC has, postponement has been decided,” Pound said in an interview with USA Today. "The parameters going forward have not been determined, but the games are not going to start on July 24, that much I know.”

Insisting that no decision has been made, Mark Adams, chief spokesman for the IOC, said, "It is the right of every IOC member to interpret the decision of the IOC executive board, which was announced yesterday.”

Pound, the longest-serving member of the IOC, is not part of the executive committee that would make the final decision on how to move forward, or part of the other groups that have coordinated the Tokyo Games or the Olympic response to the coronavirus threat.

Olympic leaders in Canada, Australia and Norway said their athletes would not participate even if the Tokyo Games were held as originally scheduled. The governing body for track and field wrote to Thomas Bach, the IOC president, calling for a delay. And in Japan, where politicians and local organizers had resisted any changes to plans that represent years of work and billions of dollars in investments, leaders began to acknowledge the reality of a delay.

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Yoshiro Mori, president of the local organizing committee, described a postponement as "inevitable” and said that organizers were not "stupid enough to ignore” the sentiments being expressed by athletes and a growing number of national Olympic committees.

Mori said four weeks was a "short time” to get everything needed in order. "It requires a tremendous amount of time and we have to hurry to go through this,” he said.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, for whom the Tokyo Games are as defining as the Sochi Olympics in 2014 were for President Vladimir Putin of Russia, told parliament Monday that the country "may have no option but to consider postponing the games.” Abe said he hoped a decision could be made quickly.

The general sentiment in Japan appears to support a delay. A recent poll conducted by Japanese news agency Kyodo revealed almost 70 percent of people did not expect the Olympics to open as billed on July 24.

Bach laid out the IOC’s timeline after an emergency meeting of its executive board Sunday, saying the group would be guided in its decision by medical experts, specifically the World Health Organization.

Lawrence Gostin, an expert on health law who has advised the WHO on other pandemics but is not involved in the decisions surrounding the Olympics, said hosting the games could be "catastrophic” for the world.

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"You would literally be bringing people from all over the world to Asia and back — it would be such an amplifying effect that we would come to deeply regret it,” said Gostin, the director of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law at Georgetown. The institute gives technical and strategic support to the WHO in the United States.

Rescheduling an event as gargantuan as the games — essentially a series of more than 30 world championships — is hardly an easy task. Shifting requires navigating a thicket of financial obligations that have taken years to construct and will be complicated to unwind and then carry forward.

For example, the Olympic Village, which was expected to host some 17,000 athletes, coaches and support staff during the games, is scheduled to be converted into permanent housing afterward. Most of the units have already been sold, meaning a postponement would require thousands of contracts and leases to be redone.

The IOC also has hundreds of deals with broadcasters and sponsors, many of whom are suffering with the collapse of world markets and are likely to seek a reduction in what they pay to televise the Olympics. While the IOC does have insurance, it’s not yet clear what losses would be covered and what an insurance company might argue would fall outside the policy, which would produce even more litigation.

Mehrzad, the sports lawyer, said the IOC and Tokyo needed to be aligned, at the very least, because canceling without a mutual agreement would put the deciders in breach of contract.

"Commercial partners will have little leverage if the organizers can say the Olympics have been frustrated in their efforts to host the Olympics,” Mehrzad said.

NBC Sports, which televises the games in the US and is one of the IOC’s biggest partners, said in a statement that it supported the committee’s approach.

"We are prepared to stand behind any decision made by the IOC, the Japanese government, and the world health officials with whom they are working regarding the Tokyo Olympics,” NBC Sports said.

Athletes have become increasingly direct in their criticisms of the IOC and Bach.

"Does this mean that athletes face up to another FOUR weeks of finding ways to fit in training — whilst potentially putting ourselves, coaches, support staff and loved ones at risk just to find out they were going to be postponed anyway,” British sprinter Dina Asher Smith said on Twitter.

Max Hartung, a German fencer who was in isolation with his girlfriend at home, recently said publicly that he would not participate in the games even if they were held this summer.

"I think the pressure is rising,” Hartung said. "I understand it’s difficult to postpone and there needs to be careful planning but me personally I would wish for them to take a decision sooner rather than later.”

Brendan Schwab, executive director of the World Players Association, an umbrella body for player unions worldwide, said athletes have been simply unable to train and organizers have a responsibility to not make responding to the pandemic more difficult. “It’s simply not practical now” to hold the games safely, he said.

While the IOC spoke Sunday of entering a new phase of contingency planning, its work has been underway for some time, Bach acknowledged in an interview with The New York Times last week.

A statement by the Australian Olympic Committee hinted toward a yearlong delay. John Coates, president of the committee, is close to Bach and also leads an IOC group responsible for overseeing the buildup to the 2020 Games.

"The AOC says Australian athletes should prepare for a Tokyo Olympic Games in the northern summer of 2021,” its statement read.