Will the coronavirus cancel or postpone the 2020 Olympics? Host city Tokyo sends mixed messages

March 4, 2020, 7:33 AM UTC

As the coronavirus pandemic takes its toll on international events, prompting the cancellation of major global summits and regional sports meets, Japan’s Olympic organizing committee has remained resolute that the summer 2020 games will go ahead as scheduled.

There is “no plan B” for Tokyo 2020, the Tokyo Olympic organizers said on February 15. However, as the number of people infected with COVID-19 continues to rise—both within Japan and abroad—cracks are appearing in that narrative.

“The contract calls for the Games to be held within 2020. That could be interpreted as allowing a postponement,” Japan’s Olympics minister Seiko Hashimoto said in response to a lawmaker’s question in parliament on Tuesday. Currently, the Olympic games are scheduled for July 24 to August 9, followed by the Paralympics from August 25 to September 6.

Hashimoto reiterated that the Olympics are still on schedule for July—a message that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has maintained for weeks as well. In a statement emailed to Fortune on March 2, the IOC said “preparations for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 are continuing as planned.”

“The IOC is in contact with the World Health Organization as well as its own medical experts. We have full confidence that the relevant authorities, in particular in Japan and China, will take all the necessary measures to address the situation,” the IOC said.

However, officials in Japan have been criticized for their slow response to the coronavirus outbreak, which has now infected 293 in the country—excluding the 706 infected passengers onboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship docked in Tokyo’s Yokohama district.

Japan’s northern-most province of Hokkaido, which has the highest number of cases at 79, declared a state of emergency last week. Meanwhile countries including Thailand, the U.S., and China have warned citizens against traveling to Japan, with some nations imposing mandatory two-week quarantines on arrivals from Japan.

On February 26, IOC member Dick Pound renewed speculation that the games were under threat when he suggested that a decision about the future of Tokyo 2020 would have to be made by the end of May, saying, “In and around that time, I’d say folks are going to have to ask: ‘Is this under sufficient control that we can be confident about going to Tokyo or not?’”  

The following day, in a phone call with reporters, IOC president Thomas Bach attempted to quiet the rumor mill Pound set off and asserted that preparations for the games are “on schedule.”

But not everything is sticking to plan. Training for the roughly 80,000 volunteers required to ensure the games run smoothly was postponed at the end of February and the final Olympic baseball qualifier, due to be held in Taiwan, has been rescheduled from April to June.

Meanwhile some teams—particularly those from China—have had to evacuate from their home countries in order to continue training safely.

“Now, the Chinese wrestling team is training in Serbia and traveling from there to the different qualification tournaments. The table tennis team of China is in Qatar. The Chinese women’s basketball team is in Croatia. We have managed to move qualification competitions and tournaments within weeks from China to other countries where the safety of the athletes could be ensured,” Bach said.

But as the coronavirus continues to spread beyond Asia, viable safe training grounds are becoming harder to find.

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