The International Olympic Committee doubled down on its stance the coronavirus will not affect the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, even in the wake of a Japanese official raising the possibility of a postponement during a government hearing.
The IOC's Executive Board, which is holding a scheduled meeting at its headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, released a statement Tuesday morning expressing "full commitment to the success" of the Tokyo Olympics taking place from July 24 to Aug. 9 as originally planned.
"The IOC remains fully committed to the success of the Olympic Games #Tokyo2020," IOC President Thomas Bach said, through the IOC's Twitter feed. "I encourage all athletes to prepare for the Games with 'full steam.'"
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The IOC said it intends to follow advice from the World Health Organization and encouraged athletes to continue training for the Olympics to move forward as planned. A suspension or cancellation would be massively disruptive for athletes, many of whom design training schedules years in advance to peak for the Olympics.
Tuesday in Japan, Japan's Olympics minister said the country's contract with the IOC would allow it to suspend the games.
"The contract calls for the Games to be held within 2020. That could be interpreted as allowing a postponement," Seiko Hashimoto said in response to a lawmaker's question in parliament, Reuters reported.
Speculation about the fate of the Olympic Games, even five months away from their start, has grown as the coronavirus has spread. Canadian IOC member Dick Pound said in an interview with the Associated Press last week that the IOC would have until late May, about two months before the start of the Games, to decide whether to cancel the Olympics. He said moving the Games would present too many logistical challenges.
Postponing the Games would also raise issues, the thorniest of them coming from financial considerations. The IOC receives the majority of its revenue from its television rights contract with NBC, which would not want to pit Olympic broadcasts against NFL programming in the fall.
In interviews last week, multiple health experts said it is too early to know how the coronavirus could affect the Olympics, in part because so little is known about the disease and when possible vaccines or medication will become available. But they cautioned against the IOC's insistence everything will be fine.
"They should let people know that we are currently in the midst of a pandemic and social distancing is a significant public response element of pandemics," said University of Nebraska professor Ali Khan, formerly the director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "We should expect that we will have to factor that into the Olympics.
"I do not like the message that the risk is low and there's nothing to worry about and things will be fine. I think they should engage their community to say that there's a possibility if this epidemic is not in check, we will need to make adjustments and cancel the event. That's what I would want to hear: If they have to cancel the Olympics, what are they going to do?"
Olympic organizers have said the coronavirus could alter the torch relay, a tradition in which an Olympic flame is carried around the world in advance of the Opening Ceremonies, beginning in Athens. Greek Olympic officials said the lightning will go forward next week as scheduled, according to The Associated Press. Greece has seen seven cases of coronavirus, all among people who recently traveled to Italy.
The coronavirus has already wreaked havoc on international qualifying events. Last week, the International Triathlon Union announced that its qualifying event would be moved from China to Spain. On Friday, FINA announced the women's water polo qualification tournament, hosted in Trieste, Italy, would be delayed from March 8 to May 17. On April 20, it will decide if Trieste can still host the event or if needs to be moved. Baseball's qualifying tournament, scheduled to be held in Taipei, was pushed from April to July, the sport's governing body announced Monday.
The Olympic men's soccer qualifying tournament for Concacaf, a federation made up of North American and Central American countries, is scheduled to begin March 20 in Guadalajara, Mexico. It remains on schedule.
"At Concacaf we are closely following the Center for Disease Control and Prevention guidelines in the United States, and monitoring public health developments across the entire region," Concacaf spokesman Nicholas Noble said in a statement. "Based on the information available to us at this time, we are working on our upcoming tournaments going ahead as planned. We are in ongoing discussions with our member football associations, clubs and other stakeholders in all the countries we operate and will of course follow any new guidance provided by local authorities or relevant government departments."
An Alpine skiing test event for the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics has also been canceled.