Canada and Australia are the first countries to officially declare their intention to withdraw from the Tokyo Olympics barring a postponement

By Dave Quinn
March 23, 2020 10:23 AM
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As the fate of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics remains undecided amid the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak, two countries are drawing the line.

On Sunday, the Canadian Olympic Committee (COC) and Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) both announced that they will not be sending athletes to the upcoming Summer Games unless organizers postpone the competition until next year.

“While we recognize the inherent complexities around a postponement, nothing is more important than the health and safety of our athletes and the world community,” said the COC in a statement, while urgently calling on the International Olympic Committee (IOC), and the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) and the World Health Organization (WHO) to make the tough decision.

“This is not solely about athlete health — it is about public health,” COC stressed. “With COVID-19 and the associated risks, it is not safe for our athletes, and the health and safety of their families and the broader Canadian community for athletes to continue training towards these Games. In fact, it runs counter to the public health advice which we urge all Canadians to follow.”

AOC said in their statement that they believe “our athletes now need to prioritize their own health and of those around them, and to be able to return to the families, in discussion with their national federations.”

“We have athletes based overseas, training at central locations around Australia as teams and managing their own programs. With travel and other restrictions this becomes an untenable situation,” AOC chief executive Matt Carroll said. “The IOC had adopted the key principles of putting athlete health first and ensuring it acted in their best interests and the interests of sport. This decision reflects those principles. We are now in a position where we can plan with greater certainty.”

Credit: FABRICE COFFRINI/AFP/Getty

As of Monday morning, March 23, there have been 350,536 confirmed cases of coronavirus throughout the world, according to Johns Hopkins University’s Center for Systems Science and Engineering, which has been tracking the data. Of those cases, 15,328 people have died.

Pressure has been mounting for the IOC and Japanese government to postpone the games, but no official decision has been made, with organizers long insisting that the Summer Olympics’ July 24 start date will go on as planned.

On Sunday, the IOC slightly amended that, saying they would spend the next month “conducting full assessments of the outbreak” with the Japanese government and planning for possible “scenarios,” including “modifying existing operational plans” or changing the start date altogether.

They insisted that “cancellation is not on the agenda.”

“On the one hand, there are significant improvements in Japan where the people are warmly welcoming the Olympic flame. This could strengthen the IOC’s confidence in the Japanese hosts that the IOC could, with certain safety restrictions, organize Olympic Games in the country whilst respecting its principle of safeguarding the health of everyone involved,” the IOC said in a statement. “On the other hand, there is a dramatic increase in cases and new outbreaks of COVID-19 in different countries on different continents.”

They went on to list “a few of many, many” challenges they are facing, including the fact that “a number of critical venues needed for the Games could potentially not be available anymore,” plus “the situations with millions of nights already booked in hotels is extremely difficult to handle, and the international sports calendar for at least 33 Olympic sports would have to be adapted.”

Earlier this month, Haruyuki Takahashi — one of the 25 people on the committee’s executive board — told The Wall Street Journal that the games could likely be postponed one to two years if needed.

A postponement would still have serious financial implications, Takahashi said, as well as cause challenges with the international sporting schedule, keeping in mind the 2022 Winter Olympics.

Additionally, athletes would have to go through qualification all over again, which means some could lose their right to compete.

Coronavirus
| Credit: Alissa Eckert, MS; Dan Higgins, MAMS

Canada and Australia are the first countries to officially declare their intention to withdraw from the Tokyo Olympics barring a postponement, though Italy — which has the highest number of coronavirus-related deaths — has also strongly advocated for a delay.

USA Track and Field and USA Swimming both publicly pushed for postponement, too.

As information about the coronavirus pandemic rapidly changes, PEOPLE is committed to providing the most recent data in our coverage. Some of the information in this story may have changed after publication. For the latest on COVID-19, readers are encouraged to use online resources from CDC, WHO, and local public health departments and visit our coronavirus hub.