TOKYO (AP) — President Donald Trump’s suggestion to postpone the Tokyo Olympics for a year because of the spreading coronavirus was immediately shot down by Japan’s Olympic minister.
“The IOC and the organizing committee are not considering cancellation or a postponement — absolutely not at all,” Seiko Hashimoto, an Olympic bronze medalist, told a news conference on Friday in Tokyo.
The International Olympic Committee and Tokyo organizers have stayed on message since the viral outbreak in China three months ago spread across Asia and then the globe: The games will open as schedule on July 24.
“I just can’t see having no people there. In other words, not allowing people,” Trump told reporters at the White House on Thursday. “Maybe, and this is just my idea, maybe they postpone it for a year.”
Television broadcasters and sponsors have billions invested in the Olympics, and the crowded international sports calendar has little space for pushing the games back a year. Holding the Olympics without fans has been floated, as has simply canceling the Olympics, which has only happened during wartime.
“As best we can — so athletes will have no confusion or uncertainty — we will put in our maximum effort,” Hashimoto said. She competed in four Winter Olympics as a speed skater, winning bronze in 1992, and three Summer Olympics as a cyclist.
A cancellation or postponement will ripple in thousands of directions, hitting sponsors, television, 11,000 Olympic and 4,400 Paralympic athletes, staffs, airlines, hotels, and $1 billion lost in ticket sales. It also hurts 80,000 unpaid volunteers who will miss a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.
Trump later praised Tokyo’s Olympic preparations and their “magnificent” venue. His apparent change of heart came after a phone call with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.
“Just had a great conversation with Prime Minister Abe of Japan. I told him that the just completed Olympic venue is magnificent,” Trump tweeted late Thursday. “He has done an incredible job, one that will make him very proud. Good things will happen for Japan and their great Prime Minister. Lots of options!”
The IOC oversaw an Olympic flame-lighting ceremony on Thursday in Greece, another sign it hopes to go ahead in four-and-a-half months. The flame is to arrive in Japan on March 20 and will begin a four-month relay around the country on March 26.
Tokyo organizers have downsized the torch arrival ceremony and will announce a week before the relay begins if crowds will be limited, or the route will be changed.
International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach noted in Greece the “difficult circumstances” created by the virus outbreak, but stressed the IOC’s commitment to the success of the Tokyo Games.
“This ceremony demonstrates once more our commitment to the success of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020,” Bach said.
“Nineteen weeks before the opening ceremony, we are strengthened in this commitment by the many authorities and sports organizations around the world which are taking so many significant measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus,” Bach said.
The ceremonial part of Thursday’s flame-lighting was held with customary mock-archaic splendor: Young men and women dressed in pleated robes, a prayer to Apollo — the ancient Greek god of light — and dancing to flutes and drums under a splendid blue sky as blackbirds sang.
But fears of the coronavirus forced Greek officials to ban members of the public from attending the ceremony and severely curtail the number of invited officials and journalists. Normally, several thousand people from many countries gather on the earthen banks of Olympia’s ancient stadium to watch the ceremony.
Stressing their commitment to gender equality, Greek relay organizers selected a woman, for the first time, to be the first torchbearer — Rio de Janeiro shooting gold medalist Anna Korakaki. She passed the flame to another woman, Mizuki Noguchi of Japan, who won the marathon at the 2004 Athens Games.
Among the torchbearers at Ancient Olympia was European Union commissioner for migration Margaritis Schinas, a Greek. Other runners on the Greek leg include Olympic champions Tadahiro Nomura and Saori Yoshida of Japan.
In Japan, the torch relay will start on March 26 from the Fukushima province that was ravaged in the deadly 2011 earthquake and tsunami, travelling for 121 days before reaching Tokyo for the opening ceremony on July 24.
The ancient games started in 776 BC and were held in Olympia for more than 1,000 years until they were stopped in early Christian times because of their pagan past.