The next victim of the coronavirus could be the 2020 Summer Olympics

Hopes that the Olympic torch will be lit on schedule in Japan are growing dimmer by the day, as the march of the coronavirus continues to spread.

By Reed Alexander | @reedalexander

March 21, 2020


UPDATE: After growing international pressure, Olympic organizers announced that they would postpone this year's Summer Olympics until next year. The games will now begin, reportedly, in July 2021.

As the global spread of the coronavirus pandemic continues, a growing chorus of international athletes are raising their voices to call for the postponement of the Summer Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan.

On Saturday, members of the American track and field teams released a statement calling for the delay of the games until 2021. The games — which are forecast to cost well in excess of $13 billion — are meant to begin on July 24, 2020, in Tokyo, but doubts are mounting that sticking to the schedule would be in the interest of global public health.

"Unfortunately, while our world class athletes are willing to push themselves to their athletic limits in pursuit of Olympic success, the likelihood that they will be able to properly train in a safe and adequate environment, and replicate the excellence we have all come to expect, does not appear likely in the midst of this global crisis," wrote Max Siegel, the CEO of USA Track and Field, to the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee in an open letter which was posted Saturday on Twitter.

On Twitter, Siegel's letter gained early support. Lolo Jones, an American female hurdler and bobsledder who has competed in both the Summer and Winter Olympics, posted to her more than 400,000 followers: "I am glad [USA Track and Field] spoke up... Telling athletes to carry on as normal amidst this public health crisis is irresponsible and demeaning."

"This is a responsible request. We all want the Olympic Games to happen," commented Ray Flynn, a former Team USA Olympic track and field runner. "Delaying or postponement to 2021 makes sense in these uncertain times."

The USA Track and Field runners aren't the first athletes to call for postponement. On Friday, the floodgates of international pressure opened, with three groups — the American swim team, and the national Olympic Committees for Brazil and Norway — all releasing pleas for the 2020 Summer Games to be pushed to 2021.

"Our world class swimmers are always willing to race anyone, anytime and anywhere; however, pressing forward amidst the global health crisis this summer is not the answer," wrote Tim Hinchley, CEO of the US swim team, in a note to the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee. "The right and responsible thing to do is to prioritize everyone's health and safety and appropriately recognize the toll this global pandemic is taking on athletic preparations."

The Brazilian Olympic Committee wrote in a statement that its call for the games to be delayed until 2021 stems from "the notorious worsening of the COVID-19 pandemic, which has already infected 250,000 people worldwide, and the consequent difficulty for athletes to maintain their best competitive level due to the need to stop training and competitions on a global scale."

Leaders of Norway's Olympic and Paralympic Committee noted that their government banned organized sports activities in March. "This is indeed a very challenging time for the sports movement in Norway, but we are determined to prevail," they wrote to the International Olympic Committee. "Our clear recommendation is that the Olympic Games in Tokyo shall not take place before the COVID-19 situation is under firm control on a global scale."

Historically, there is little precedent for canceling or delaying the Olympics: The last time they were shut down was 1944, when the Second World War interfered with plans for the Winter Olympics to be held in Italy. Nevertheless, it looks increasingly unlikely that the coronavirus crisis will end in time to make the Tokyo Games possible this year.

As of Saturday afternoon, more than 300,000 people worldwide had contracted the virus, resulting in 13,000 deaths, according to the latest figures from CNN and Johns Hopkins University. And new models developed by Columbia University and the New York Times have painted a frightening picture of the potential virus spread in the United States, warning that the country could be saturated with infections from coast to coast by July.

For now, Olympic organizers have yet to indicate a new potential date. "We're not making any adjustments to postpone the Games," a senior Japanese government official told the country's Parliament on Wednesday, according to a Reuters report.

The president of the International Olympic Committee, however, was more reticent in tone. "Nobody can tell you what the developments are tomorrow, what they are in one month, not to mention in more than four months," Thomas Bach told the New York Times in an interview on Thursday. "Therefore it would not be responsible in any way to set a date or take a decision right now."