What was once an unthinkable long shot became an unfortunate reality Tuesday morning, when the International Olympic Committee and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe jointly announced the postponement of the 2020 Olympics to no later than 2021.
Olympic competition has been canceled only three times in the 124-year history of the modern Games, and all three instances were because of global conflict (1916, World War I; 1940 and 1944, World War II). But never before has a Games been pushed back a year, an enormous undertaking for a global event with more than 11,000 athletes from around the globe.
Given the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic over the past four months, resulting in mounting pressure from athletes and national Olympic committees, the International Olympic Committee was backed into a corner.
Tuesday's decision brings an encyclopedia's worth of unknowns. ESPN's team of Olympic writers tries to explain exactly why this happened and what it may mean moving forward.
Why did the International Olympic Committee decide to postpone the 2020 Olympics now?
Bonnie Ford: Pressure from athletes came first, followed by individual sport federations and national Olympic committees. This mirrors trends of recent times, when athletes have increasingly raised their voices about governance, anti-doping and limitations on their commercial and brand activities during the Olympic period. The fact that this groundswell had to come from the bottom up -- rather than common-sense, humane leadership from the top -- should surprise no one who has covered or observed Olympic sport over the past few decades, as rivers of money have poured into a formerly "amateur" enterprise and the IOC has remained stubbornly self-serving, tone-deaf and isolated.
Alyssa Roenigk: Had we reported this news one or two weeks ago, our stories would reflect how the IOC took athlete and public health and safety, and the advice of the World Health Organization, into account to make the smart call. Instead, individual athletes, sport governing bodies (swimming, track and field, and gymnastics in the United States) and national Olympic committees (Canada, Australia and Germany led the way) were forced to advocate for the postponement of the Games and the well-being of their athletes and citizens. The IOC could no longer ignore the surge of support to cancel or postpone the Games and was forced to set aside its own self-interest and the financial cost of this decision to make the right call for the world. Is anyone surprised the decision needed to be thrust upon them?
Kelly Cohen: The beginning of the end came Sunday, when the Canadian Olympic Committee announced it would not send its athletes to Tokyo shortly after the IOC's announcement that it had put a four-week decision deadline in place. The COVID-19 pandemic has touched too many countries, and having hundreds of thousands of people from those parts of the world travel to Japan was a far greater risk than reward.
Which athletes will this decision impact most?
Wayne Drehs: Older athletes who were at the tail end of their careers face the most uncertainty. Will 34-year-old track star Allyson Felix want to put herself through another year of training? There's Ryan Lochte, who was attempting to become the oldest male swimmer in U.S. history; and 34-year-old Monica Abbott and 36-year-old Cat Osterman, two of the most dominant softball pitchers in American history. Or Kerri Walsh Jennings, who has won a medal in every Olympic beach volleyball tournament in which she has competed going back to 2004. Walsh Jennings and teammate Nicole Branagh, both 39, would have been the oldest beach volleyball players to compete in the Olympics. Will they push on for another year?
Roenigk: At the other end of that spectrum are young athletes who would have been too young to compete this summer -- gymnasts, for example, who would not have turned 16 within this calendar year. (Had the Olympics run as scheduled, a gymnast must have been born before Jan. 1, 2005.) Will athletes who come of age in 2021 (those who turn 16 by the end of next year) be allowed to compete for a spot on the 2021 team?
What does this mean for athletes who already qualified for the 2020 Olympics?
Drehs: At the time of the postponement, 76 American athletes had already qualified for the 2020 Olympics. On a conference call last week, American athletes raised the same question. According to people who were on the call, the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee leadership told athletes they would likely still qualify for a 2021 Games, but nothing has yet been said publicly. And a lot can change in a year. In her letter to athletes Tuesday morning, CEO Sarah Hirshland wrote, "I wish I had answers to every question out there, but the reality is this decision is unprecedented."
One other question that will also need to be answered: How will this impact scheduling around U.S. Olympic trials that were still set to happen, particularly gymnastics, track and field, and swimming? Will those happen within six weeks of the new start of the 2020 Olympics next year?
Roenigk: Like everything regarding the Tokyo Olympics -- as well as all sports, and, quite honestly, everything in our lives right now -- that answer is TBD.
What are the financial ramifications of postponement?
Cohen: The financial ramifications are truly staggering. Regardless of whether Japan spent $12 billion or $25 billion (there have been estimates of both), the country is losing billions of dollars in a time when there is already so much uncertainty and stress. Every industry is hurt, from the sponsors to the broadcasters to the insurance companies. The service industry is hurt, from hotel owners down to restaurants that would be serving guests from overseas. It will certainly be hard to rebound from this, although the promise of 2021 is at least a small glimmer of hope.
What long-term impact will this decision have on the Olympics?
Ford: My wish for the event remains the same as it has for a long time, and perhaps this defining time in our history will force it. Host cities and organizers make too many promises to local residents, and bear too big a burden. The Olympic Games need to be scaled down and made more rational, environmentally and economically, with far greater athlete control and input -- through an athlete union. That's been a pipe dream in the modern era, but with the quantum shifts in our society that are sure to be instigated by this pandemic, who knows? Athletes will continue to be galvanized to take agency over their working conditions, with the knowledge that their welfare is not always the top priority for the people at the top.
Drehs: I completely agree. This new world in which we live is an opportunity to hit the reset button for a lot of sports, but perhaps for the Olympic Games more than any other. If the true purpose of the Games is to bring the world together through sport, then that should be the genuine driving force behind decisions the IOC makes moving forward, not lining the pockets or boosting the political capital of leaders around the world. I am skeptical, but I hope this decision will be humbling for the IOC and help it refocus its ultimate purpose.
Cohen: Are athletes and the greater Olympic community less trusting of the IOC after it took so long to delay Tokyo 2020? A lot of questions were raised about Tokyo that could hold true going forward, as well: Do the Games need to be scaled back to prevent future health issues? Further, what happens to the 2024 Olympics in Paris?