Pulling the plug: The WHO and why behind the Tokyo Games rescheduling

Mihir Vasavda
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A man wearing protective face mask, following the outbreak of the coronavirus, looks at his mobile phone next to The Olympic rings in front of the Japan Olympics Museum in Tokyo. (REUTERS)

From insisting the Games will go on to setting a four-week deadline to decide fate before eventually delaying, the IOC has rapidly changed its stance on Tokyo 2020 following the outbreak of the pandemic. Here are the reasons that led to the postponement.

IOC president Thomas Bach said government guidelines, imposing restrictions on daily life till April, and even USA president Donald Trump's target of lifting restrictions by 'middle of April' was among the reasons he waited to postpone the Tokyo Games.

Amid mounting pressure, he then called an emergency meeting of the IOC executive board on Sunday, which agreed to open discussions with Japan over postponement and scheduled a call for Tuesday.

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In the hours after the IOC meeting, further “alarming information” emerged about the rapid global spread of the virus. This development, combined with Monday’s WHO warning that the spread was “accelerating,” meant the IOC opted to push for consensus to postpone the Games. The WHO's advice, Bach said, 'was a crucial moment' in their decision making.

Empty seats

The possibility of holding the Olympics behind closed doors was never seriously considered but there was an underlying concern of the stadiums not being filled to capacity during the Games. "'Hide the empty seats' is a popular dictate in the TV sports industry, something executives remind producers and directors about all the time. It's based on the idea that if only so many fans turned up in the stands, why would a viewer bother to watch?" the Associated Press noted.

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The IOC, many believe, would have found it difficult to allay the safety concerns and there was a risk that several athletes, officials, spectators and even sponsors would have stayed away from the Olympics if it would have gone ahead as scheduled. A poorly attended event would have reflected badly on the hosts as well.

Qualification quagmire

With nearly every sport suspending play in the wake of the pandemic, more than two-thirds of the 11,000 potential Olympians from 200 countries had not yet qualified. With a majority of athletes unable to train, and given that there is still no clarity as to when the situation will get normal for play to resume, there were suggestions that quotas would be distributed according to the latest world rankings or, in some cases, based performances in the previous Olympics.

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That would have made the entire process arbitrary and created further complications. Many even argued that it would dilute the playing field. Postponing the Games by a year gives the respective sports federations enough time to work out strategies to finish their qualification process. More light on this is expected to be shed on Thursday, when the IOC holds a conference call with international federations.

Abe's crowning glory

Shinzo Abe declares victory in Japan election but without mandate to revise Constitution

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is due to retire in September 2021. (AP/File Photo)

The Games, many commentators say, were expected to be the 'crowning glory' of Shinzo Abe's nine-year period as Japan's Prime Minister. He is Japan's longest-serving Prime Minister in history and has actively promoted the Tokyo Olympics, even dressing up as Super Mario in the closing ceremony of the Rio Games.

Like they used the 1964 Games to rightful place on the international stage following the ignominy of Second World War, Abe -- according to The Times -- 'had been banking on Tokyo 2020 to mark a similar moment of recovery from the tsunami and nuclear disaster in 2011'.  Abe was faced with the choice of delaying the Games or cancelling, which would have caused a massive economic impact.

As per the rules of his political party, Abe is due to retire in September 2021. "Is this why he and Mr Bach agreed that the postponed Games will be held no later than the 'summer' of next year?" The Times wondered.