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Tokyo Olympics Postponed Due To Coronavirus Pandemic

Mar 24, 2020
Originally published on March 24, 2020 11:46 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

Another change due to the coronavirus - Japan's prime minister says the Tokyo Olympics, which were supposed to start on July 24, will be postponed until next summer at the latest. Now, the Olympics have been cancelled three times before because of world wars. They've never been rescheduled, though. NPR's Anthony Kuhn is covering this from Seoul, South Korea. Hi, Anthony.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Hi, Noel.

KING: What did Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe say about the cancellation?

KUHN: Well, he came out and spoke to reporters after a phone call with International Olympic Committee chief, President Thomas Bach, and he said that he had requested the postponement because of the current situation and in order to have the optimum conditions for athletes and a safe environment for spectators. And he said Thomas Bach and the IOC support him 100% on his suggestion.

KING: The really interesting thing here is that even, like, yesterday, the IOC and Japanese officials were insistent that the Olympic Games would not be postponed or canceled. Why were they so adamant at that time?

KUHN: Well, for weeks, they just wouldn't budge. They said that cancellation or postponement was unthinkable. They said, hey, it's four months out; it's too early to decide this sort of thing. And increasingly, they were being criticized for being in denial and not prioritizing the health of the athletes. You know, I think it may have also been just such a nightmarish scenario to them to postpone the games that they just wouldn't admit it if they absolutely did not have to, and that's the way it started to get.

At this point, almost half of the athletes have had - not had their qualifying trials. And yeah, so - and also, training camps have been canceled or postponed. So it's not clear how this would happen if the games were to go ahead. At the same time, you've got corporate sponsors in Japan who are sinking hundreds of million dollars into advertising and sponsorship deals, and they were getting antsy. They wanted clarification.

So finally, on Sunday, the IOC said, all right, we have to consider some Plan B's, including postponement. Yesterday, Shinzo Abe said, well, under the current conditions, we cannot hold the games. But he did insist that the games would go on later, that, you know, at worst they would be postponed but not cancelled.

KING: And here we have him saying that they will be postponed, and I wonder what's involved in that? I would imagine, first, there's a lot of money on the line here, right?

KUHN: That's right, by some estimates $28 billion in spending on infrastructure investment, broadcasting rights, corporate sponsorship, advertising - all this stuff is now up in the air. Remember that, you know, they need sports venues for these things, and some of those things are already booked with other events for 2021. So they've now got to redo that schedule. You know, travel - so many logistical things need to be rethought out. It really is a nightmare for them. One interesting thing is they said it's still going to be called the 2020 Olympics, even though it's going to be in the summer of 2021, so maybe they'll save a little money on not having to reprint T-shirts.

KING: Oh, that's so interesting. It's like when the Super Bowl - when they print T-shirts for the side that wins but also the side that loses in advance. That's kind of fascinating. So let me ask you about the spread of the virus in Japan. We haven't heard much about that recently. Is the virus spreading there quickly, and is that a contributing factor with respect to the cancellation?

KUHN: It's not spreading as quickly as some people had feared. And their 1,800 cases there, which includes passengers on a cruise ship, is a lot lower than their neighbors in China and in South Korea. But experts have been warning that there could be a second wave of cases, and they've warned local governments and hospitals to prepare to be flooded with these people. They point out that, you know, they've really been testing very few people relative to their capacity. And Tokyo's governor warned yesterday that if - warned today that if cases spike, they might have to lock down Tokyo.

KING: Just really quickly - are we certain that the games will be held in the summer of 2021?

KUHN: It's certainly too early to tell now. But, you know, cancellation would be their absolute worst-case scenario, and it would cost them even more than they would lose from postponement.

KING: NPR's Anthony Kuhn in Seoul. Anthony, thanks so much.

KUHN: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.