The coronavirus may inevitably delay the Tokyo Olympics, but as the International Olympic Committee and organizers in Japan take as much as four weeks to make a final call, 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. For athletes, many of whom have pushed for a postponement, a decision now would lift the pressure off seeking ways to train in an era of social distancing.
USA Gymnastics joined the chorus Monday, saying it would call for a delay after national leaders in swimming and track and field did the same. The three sports typically combine to deliver the most medals for the United States 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."
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.
The general sentiment in Japan appears to support a delay. A recent poll conducted by Japanese news agency Kyodo revealed almost 70% 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.
"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 U.S. 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.
Sports on 03/24/2020
Print Headline: Olympics delay seems inevitable