IOC says 'cancellation is not on the agenda' for Tokyo Olympics

The International Olympic Committee has given itself a month to consider postponing the event after an emergency meeting on Sunday, CBC Sports has confirmed. But the IOC said Sunday that "cancellation is not on the agenda" for the 2020 Summer Games.

Governing body expects to make final decision within 4 weeks

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach and his organization have been under mounting pressure to postpone the upcoming Summer Games in Tokyo. (Matthias Hangst/Getty Images)

The International Olympic Committee has given itself a month to consider postponing the 2020 Olympics after an emergency meeting on Sunday.

However, the IOC stated in a press release that "cancellation is not on the agenda" with respect to the upcoming Games.

The announcement comes in the wake of a growing chorus of voices from international sport organizations and high-profile athletes calling for the postponement of Tokyo 2020.

In a separate letter sent to Olympic athletes, IOC president Thomas Bach offered assurance that "we are working very hard, and we are confident that we will have finalized these discussions within the next four weeks." 

Furthermore, the IOC indicated in the press release that it will "step up" its contemplation of different scenarios surrounding the Games. 

"These scenarios relate to modifying existing operational plans for the Games to go ahead on 24 July 2020, and also for changes to the start date of the Games," the statement reads. 

"This step will allow better visibility of the rapidly changing development of the health situation around the world and in Japan. It will serve as the basis for the best decision in the interest of the athletes and everyone else involved." 

Bach reaches out to concerned athletes

In light of concerns over the COVID-19 pandemic, Bach indicated the IOC wants to be part of the solution, but with the goal of staging the Games still at top of mind.

"As successful athletes, you know that we should never give up, even if the chance to succeed appears to be very small," Bach said.

"Our commitment to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 is based on this experience. It is our experience as athletes that you must always be ready to adapt to new situations. For this reason we have, as indicated before, been thinking in different scenarios and are adapting them almost day by day."

Bach was also clear that it is still too early to make a decision.

"Our basis of information today is that a final decision about the date of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 now would still be premature," he said.

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World Athletics remains unswayed

It appears the announcement didn't go far enough for World Athletics, the international governing body for the sport of athletics.

CBC News obtained a letter from World Athletics president Sebastien Coe addressed to Bach on Sunday, in which Coe writes his organization is "unanimous... that an Olympic Games in July this year is neither feasible nor desirable."

The two-page letter highlights a number of concerns regarding going ahead with the Olympics as planned.

Coe outlined three main reasons for needing to postpone the Games, including competition fairness, issues over training, and athletes injuring themselves and maintaining their health.

"The uncertainty of the Olympic Games happening in July and the inherent desire and motivation to excel that resides in all our athletes is causing real anguish that we can, collectively, put a stop to," Coe wrote.

"I believe that time has come and we owe it to our athletes to give them respite where we can. And in this matter, I believe we can."

Coe finished his letter, directly addressed to Bach, by saying "the whole of World Athletics remains available and at the ready to help secure a new date for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games."

Coe's letter strikes a slightly different tone than World Athletics' official response to the IOC announcement.

Their public statement reads, "World Athletics welcomes discussions with the IOC to postpone the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games and wrote to the IOC earlier today to relay this feedback from its area presidents, council and athletes. We stand ready to work with the IOC and all sport on an alternative date."

International Paralympic Committee on board

The IOC has the full support of the International Paralympic Committee, according to a statement from IPC President Andrew Parsons.

"In relation to the Games, the health and well-being of every single person attending is the number one priority and taking this decision is absolutely the right thing to do, considering the unprecedented situation we currently face.

"The next four weeks will provide time to see if the global health situation improves, while giving a window of opportunity to look into different scenarios should the dates of the Games need to be changed.

"As you can imagine, potentially changing the dates of the Olympic and Paralympic Games is a huge logistical challenge, and the IPC will support the IOC every step of the way."

The Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games are currently scheduled to begin on August 25.

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Increasing calls for postponement

Pressure to delay Tokyo 2020 has mounted throughout the week.

Countries around the world have closed borders and enforced strict lockdowns, trying to stop the pandemic. COVID-19 has killed around 13,000 people since surfacing in China months ago.

On Tuesday, Canadian hockey great Hayley Wickenheiser, a member of the IOC's Athletes Commission and a six-time Olympian, called out the IOC, saying in a statement posted on Twitter that the current crisis is bigger than any Olympics.

"I think the IOC insisting this will move ahead with such conviction is insensitive and irresponsible given the state of humanity. We don't know what's happening in the next 24 hours, let alone the next three months," Wickenheiser said.

After Wickenheiser spoke out, the dominos started to fall.

In the days that followed, the IOC drew heavy criticism for not postponing the Games. USA Swimming called for a 12-month postponement — a move supported by Swimming Canada.

"Telling athletes to prepare for an Olympic Games during a global pandemic raises serious issues," Swimming Canada CEO Ahmed El-Awadi said in a statement.

"We hold the opinions of our brothers and sisters at USA Swimming in high regard and share many of the same concerns around health and safety. That includes the safety and well-being of our athletes — both physically and mentally — and the safety of the community at large. Each day that goes by without a decision creates more stress and anxiety for our athletes, who are worried, not only about themselves, but about their communities."

And then on Saturday, USA Track and Field said it also supported a postponement. Soon after, the Norwegian Olympic Committee echoed these sentiments, saying the Olympics should wait until the COVID-19 situation is under control.

Lacking empathy

Later on Saturday, AthletesCAN — the organization that represents all of Canada's national team athletes — questioned the International Olympic Committee's level of empathy, as the world deals with the COVID-19 pandemic.

CBC Sports obtained a copy of the internal email sent to all AthletesCAN members. The email raised doubts over moving forward with the Olympics, and the increasingly muddy qualifying schedule.

"While we desperately want to believe that health and safety of all involved in the Games is the utmost priority for the IOC, IPC [International Paralympic Committee] and TOC [Tokyo Organizing Committee], at times, the communication has lacked empathy in recognizing athletes as humans first, and athletes second," AthletesCAN wrote.

With only 57 per cent of Olympics spots currently decided, and qualifying events continuing to be cancelled, Canadian athletes remain in limbo. Anxiety over the unknown was reaching a fever-pitch. The internal letter suggested athletes are torn.

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The organization says they understand that "athletes are currently in a very unpredictable and difficult position, especially as workout facilities and training centres around the country have been forced to close."

The IOC made a number of calls on Wednesday to reassure jittery partners, including one with more than 200 athlete-representatives from around the world.

"It was constructive in a way that everybody realized that we have still more than four months to go and we will address this action," said Bach.

"We said we were going to continue to be very realistic in our analysis."

Bach said the IOC will continue to push toward Tokyo while "safeguarding the health of the athletes and contributing to the containment of the virus."

Throughout all of this, Bach has been adamant that cancelling the Olympics is not an option.

"A cancellation of the Games would be the least fair solution. A cancellation would destroy the Olympic dream of 11,000 athletes of 206 Olympic committees," Bach told Germany's SWR broadcaster.

With files from CBC News' Stephanie Jenzer