Postpone the Olympics? Tokyo Official Backtracks After Causing Confusion


Organizers of this summer’s Tokyo Olympics sought on Wednesday to dispel confusion over whether the Games would proceed as scheduled, after a member of the local organizing committee said he would recommend a postponement of the event because of the coronavirus outbreak.

Amid a backdrop of growing uncertainty in the global sports landscape about whether events that draw large crowds should proceed, Yoshiro Mori, the chairman of the Tokyo organizing committee, held a news conference to reiterate the position of local organizers and the International Olympic Committee that the Games remained on track to open in late July.

“Our basic stance is to proceed with our preparation and to hold a safe Olympics,” Mr. Mori said.

Standing at his side was Haruyuki Takahashi, a member of the local organizing committee who had earlier caused a stir by telling The Wall Street Journal that a delay of one or two years would be the most prudent option if the Olympics could not be held as planned this summer.

Mr. Mori said that speculation about a possible postponement represented only the opinion of Mr. Takahashi, who apologized for his comments.

The Japanese Olympic minister, Seiko Hashimoto, also responded to the comments on Wednesday, remarking in parliament that it was “impossible” that the Games would be delayed.

But later in the day, seemingly adding to the confusion, Kyodo News released an interview with Mr. Takahashi in which he stated that he would propose a delay at the next committee meeting in April. Those comments were apparently made before he backtracked and issued a public apology.

The Tokyo organizers’ attempts to quash speculation about possible disruptions came as a cascade of cancellations, closings and general confusion played out across the global sports landscape. In Argentina, for example, news media reports said the government had banned all sporting events for the rest of the month.

At a congressional hearing in Washington on Wednesday, Anthony Fauci, a leading expert on infectious diseases, recommended that professional sporting events in the United States be played without spectators. Unlike their counterparts in other countries, leagues in America have so far taken only precautionary steps like closing locker rooms to the news media and limiting athletes’ interactions with fans.

“We would recommend that there not be large crowds,” said Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “If that means not having any people in the audience when the N.B.A. plays, so be it. But as a public health official, anything that has large crowds is something that would give a risk to spread.”

That measure is being taken in some of Europe’s biggest soccer leagues and continental tournaments, with games being played this month with empty stands or in some cases being postponed altogether.

In England, a game on Tuesday between Arsenal and Manchester City was postponed because several Arsenal players had come into close contact in recent days with the owner of a Greek club who had tested positive for the virus.

And on Wednesday, UEFA, the governing body of European soccer, announced that two Europa League knockout-round matches involving Italian teams and Spanish opponents — Inter Milan vs. Getafe and Sevilla vs. Roma — would not be played as a result of new travel restrictions between Spain and Italy imposed by the Spanish government.

UEFA will soon have even larger decisions to make. Euro 2020, its quadrennial continental championship tournament, is scheduled to begin in June, with 24 national teams playing in stadiums across 12 countries.

There has been similarly huge pressure on the N.C.A.A., which formed a coronavirus advisory panel this month, to take precautionary action before the field for its showcase event, the N.C.A.A. men’s basketball tournament, is announced on Sunday.

How those events, and others, are handled could serve as a preview of what might happen with the Olympics, the biggest sporting event in the world.

Mr. Mori, the Toyko Olympic chairman, acknowledged the coronavirus eventually could affect the Games.

“I think there is an impact,” he said. “But now, experts are discussing the response to it and the W.H.O. will present its basic thoughts soon. Unless there is any such proposal to change the plan, it is a matter of course for us, the organizing committee, to proceed with the Games as planned.”

Changes were already implemented, for instance, for the Olympic flame lighting ceremony on Thursday in Olympia, Greece. The event, normally public, is set to take place without spectators after a recent increase in coronavirus cases in the area.





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