Will Tokyo Olympics really be held?

The Olympic flame was lit Thursday in Olympia, to begin a 4-month relay due to culminate in Tokyo for the opening of the Games. But the ceremony in Greece was a muted affair this year, held without spectators as the coronavirus casts its shadow over preparations for the big event.

Growing anxiety in Japan

The city of Takasaki in Gunma Prefecture has been preparing to host the Polish Olympic and Paralympic athletes. The judo team was scheduled to arrive in March for a training camp, but at the end of February, they announced they would skip it.
It was just one of many training camps and welcome events to be canceled in recent weeks.

For some athletes, it isn't even clear whether they'll make the Olympic squad, because their qualifying events have been cancelled or postponed. On Thursday, the World Baseball Softball Confederation added to that list by postponing the Americas Qualification Event, which was scheduled to be held later this month.

An opinion poll conducted by NHK last week suggests that a majority of people in Japan no longer believe the Olympics will go ahead. Asked if they believe the Games will be held as scheduled, 45 percent of respondents said "no", and 40 percent said "yes."


Who will make a decision?

The International Olympic Committee will make the final decision on that question. IOC President Thomas Bach has repeatedly stated that the Games will go ahead. At the torch-lighting ceremony this week he said they are "strengthened" by all the authorities and sports organizations around the world working to contain the coronavirus.

But Bach has not shied away from bold decisions in the past. Last year, he decided that the marathon and race-walk events for the Tokyo Games would be moved to the northern city of Sapporo to avoid the excessive heat. Three years ago, he made the unusual move of announcing the venues for the 2024 and 2028 games simultaneously. Bach appears to be flexible and a realist, and he may well be considering alternative plans, such as delaying, canceling or holding the Olympics without spectators.

The International Olympic Committee said last week it would follow the advice of the World Health Organization. The WHO has just declared the coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic.

When will the final decision be made?

There is no deadline for a final decision. IOC member Dick Pound told the Associated Press in late February that it could be put off until late May. That would be just two months before the Games are due to open.

On Thursday, US President Donald Trump suggested that this year's Olympics should be delayed for a year. He said that would be better than holding it without spectators.

After that remark, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe spoke with Trump by phone. Abe told him that they are making an effort to hold the Olympic and Paralympic Games as scheduled.

With the Olympic torch lit, and the stadium ready, this should have been a time for finishing touches to the plans. Instead, as the outbreak spreads rapidly across the world, it is far from clear whether that flame will ever reach the stadium and take part in an opening ceremony.