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Helene Elliott: IOC ultimately made the smart decision by postponing Tokyo Olympics until 2021

A journalist waits for the start of a news conference with the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee in Tokyo, Tuesday, March 24, 2020. IOC President Thomas Bach has agreed "100%" to a proposal of postponing the Tokyo Olympics for about one year until 2021 because of the coronavirus outbreak, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Tuesday. (Jae C. Hong / AP)
A journalist waits for the start of a news conference with the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee in Tokyo, Tuesday, March 24, 2020. IOC President Thomas Bach has agreed "100%" to a proposal of postponing the Tokyo Olympics for about one year until 2021 because of the coronavirus outbreak, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said Tuesday. (Jae C. Hong / AP)
By Helene Elliott Los Angeles Times

Spurred by a near-rebellion by the federations of several countries who feared for the safety of their athletes while the COVID-19 pandemic rages, the International Olympic Committee came to its senses Tuesday and announced it will postpone the Tokyo Summer Games.

The Games, which were scheduled to run from July 24 through Aug. 9, will be rescheduled “to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021, to safeguard the health of the athlete, everybody involved in the Olympic Games and the international community,” the IOC said in a statement.

The Olympic flame will remain in Japan, where it had begun its journey toward Tokyo, and the rescheduled Olympic and Paralympic Games will still be called the 2020 Tokyo Games, unusual but smart decisions.

The IOC had no other choice but to put aside its self-interest and postpone the Olympics following a declaration by Canada earlier this week that it would not allow its athletes to compete if the Games were held on the original dates. Similar statements came from other national federations. The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee said late Monday that “a path toward postponement is the most promising,” given the disruptions the coronavirus has caused for athletes’ training and daily lives.

That it took so long to become official is the only mystery, as qualifying events were canceled and events that would have tested the readiness of the Tokyo venues also had to be wiped out because of travel restrictions imposed around the world. IOC President Thomas Bach said Sunday that the Games would not be canceled and that the organization might take as long as four weeks before deciding to postpone the massive competition, leaving athletes, fans, officials, sponsors and TV networks in uncomfortable limbo.

But as pressure mounted to provide some kind of certainty that would allow athletes and others to reconfigure their plans and as the World Health Organization said Monday that the spread of COVID-19 was “accelerating,” it became clear Bach would have to move quickly and that unraveling the logistics of moving the dates of the Games would have to wait until later. This was a time for action, not dithering, and the IOC belatedly stepped up.

Bach conferred with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan’s Olympic minister Seiko Hashimoto and the governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, among others via conference call Tuesday in what was described in the statement as a “very friendly and constructive meeting” that produced the only possible decision.

“The leaders agreed that the Olympic Games in Tokyo could stand as a beacon of hope to the world during these troubled times and that the Olympic flame could become the light at the end of the tunnel in which the world finds itself at present,” the statement said.

The imagery was a bit overwrought but the conclusion was the right one.

National Olympic committees and international sports federations were quick to back the postponement and to portray it as a forward-looking decision, not a surrender to sobering global realities. That might be spin, but creating a new finish line is an approach that goal-oriented athletes can recognize and respond to. Grieve for a while, then learn as much as possible from this experience and move on to become stronger. It’s the mantra of every athlete who has faced a setback in the pool, on the track, on the field, or in the gym.

Sarah Hirshland, chief executive of the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee, sent a note to Team USA athletes on Tuesday to acknowledge the emotional cost the postponement will have for them, as well as for organizers, host Japan, and everyone effected by the pandemic. “My heart breaks for you,” she said in the note.

But she immediately pivoted toward the future. “With this decision, the work of planning a new version of the Tokyo Games is officially underway,” she said, adding that the USOPC will work with national governing bodies, international federations and the IOC to define or redefine rules governing the team selection process and anti-doping procedures.

“This summer was supposed to be a culmination of your hard work and life’s dream, but taking a step back from competition to care for our communities and each other is the right thing to do,” Hirshland said. “Your moment will wait until we can gather again safely.”

World Athletics, the international governing body of track and field, said it welcomes the decision to postpone the Games to 2021. “It is what athletes want, and we believe this decision will give all athletes, technical officials and volunteers some respite and certainty in these unprecedented and uncertain times,” World Athletics said in a statement. It promised to “preserve and create an outdoor season” of one-day competitions when it’s safe later this year in order to help athletes prepare for the rescheduled Games in 2021, and it will review the current Olympic qualifying system for changes that might be needed.

World Athletics also said it has spoken to organizers of the 2021 world championships, which are scheduled for Aug. 6-15 at Hayward Field in Eugene, Ore., about moving those dates to accommodate the still undetermined time frame for the Olympics. The Eugene organizers “have reassured us that they will work with all of their partners and stakeholders to ensure that Oregon is able to host the World Athletics Championships on alternative dates, including dates in 2022,” World Athletics said.

The International Table Tennis Federation got to the heart of it when it acknowledged there was no choice but to postpone the Games and proclaimed the switch to 2021 isn’t a defeat of Olympic ideals. “In fact, the decision to postpone is a message of hope,” said Raul Calin, the organization’s secretary general.

Please, IOC, let that be true. Please, IOC, continue to value the inspirational power of your athletes over the financial power of the money-grubbers whose graft has too often infected the Games. A dream delayed need not be a dream denied.

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