By Karolos Grohmann
LAUSANNE, Switzerland (Reuters) – The International Olympic Committee (IOC) on Tuesday gave further unequivocal backing to this summer’s Tokyo Olympics, urging athletes to prepare “full steam” despite the coronavirus threat.
“We are preparing for a successful Olympic Games, Tokyo 2020,” IOC head Thomas Bach said at an executive board meeting to discuss the July 24-Aug. 9 sporting extravaganza.
Earlier on Tuesday, Japan’s Olympics minister Seiko Hashimoto had said that details within Tokyo’s contract with the IOC “could be interpreted as allowing a postponement” until the end of the year.
That host city contract states that one of several triggers which would allow the IOC to withdraw the Games from Tokyo would be if “the Games are not celebrated during the year 2020”.
Hashimoto said, however, that Japan’s government and Tokyo were still committed to the Games beginning on July 24, and the IOC has repeatedly swatted aside any suggestions of a postponement.
The Olympic body said again on Tuesday there was no Plan B, and that the Games would take place in their allotted time slot.
Any change to dates would instantly wreak havoc on most sports programs, with competition calendars planned several years ago to accommodate the Tokyo timings.
Finding a new date in 2020 at this stage, which would first need the green light from the IOC, would be extremely difficult, if not impossible, for the 33 sports federations present in Tokyo.
Bach, a 66-year-old lawyer and former Olympic fencing champion, has an iron grip on IOC decision-making and is known for sticking to his guns in adversity.
“I would like to encourage all the athletes to continue their preparation for the Olympic Games, Tokyo 2020 with great confidence and full steam,” the German told reporters in Lausanne. “From our side, we will continue to support the athletes and the National Olympic Committees.”
Multiple sports events around the world have been canceled during the epidemic, which has killed more than 3,000 people in China and spread to more than 60 nations including Japan where infections are near 1,000 and 12 people have died.
Crowds will be smaller and receptions have been scrapped at the Tokyo 2020 torch-lighting ceremony in ancient Olympia, Greece, next week as the Hellenic Olympic Committee (HOC) introduced measures to protect against the coronavirus, it said on Tuesday.
Despite concerns over possible health risks to spectators and participants at the Games, the Olympic body is unwilling to publicly discuss any other option, such as cancellation or postponement.
“No,” IOC spokesman Mark Adams said when asked if the Olympic body had discussed possible options if the situation deteriorates.
“There is no international travel ban and all the advice that we are getting is that the Games can and will go ahead,” Adams said. “At this precise time we are expecting the Games to begin on the 24th of July.”
The IOC board said a joint task force had been created two weeks ago, involving the IOC, the Tokyo Games organizers, the city, the government, and the World Health Organisation to help deal with the coronavirus ahead of the Olympics.
“The IOC EB appreciates and supports the measures being taken, which constitute an important part of Tokyo’s plans to host safe and secure Games,” the task force said in a statement.
Asked if he was comfortable with American athletes traveling to the Games, U.S. President Donald Trump told reporters at the White House on Tuesday he would defer to Japan, adding that it would be “a very sad thing” given Tokyo’s investment in venues for the Games.
Trump said U.S. officials were evaluating further action to restrict international travel to other virus “hot spots,” including Japan, but that no decision had been made yet.
Tokyo has pumped in more than $12 billion to organize the event, while billions more were spent on related projects.
Tokyo Games organizers are due to deliver a report via video conference to the executive board on Wednesday.
(Reporting by Karolos Grohmann; additional reporting by Jeff Mason and Steve Holland in Washington; Editing by Andrew Cawthorne, Ossian Shine, Toby Davis and Clare Fallon)