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IOC President: “It will require everybody’s efforts to make these Games a symbol of hope.”

Thomas Bach IOC/Greg Martin
25 Mar 2020
Olympic News, IOC News, Tokyo 2020, IOC Statements
IOC President Thomas Bach stressed, during a media teleconference on Wednesday, that in the face of an unprecedented challenge, the postponed Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 will need the commitment of all the stakeholders involved to give the athletes the assurance that their Olympic dream can still come true.

What were the key elements which made the IOC change its stance from commitment to the Games starting on 24 July, at first, to postponement, especially in the last couple of days?
What made us take this decision were the developments with the dynamic spreading of the coronavirus. We have, from the very beginning, communicated that we were monitoring the situation day-by-day, 24 hours a day, and that we would adapt to any changes, and follow the advice of the World Health Organization.

At the very beginning of this crisis, we had a clear focus on the developments in Japan, where we had to evaluate whether Japan would be in a position to offer a safe environment for every participant of the Olympic Games. This focus then shifted more and more to the international world. We could see, on the one hand, the progress being made in Japan, fighting the virus and the efficiency of the measures being taken. On the other hand, the virus was spreading so rapidly that it became more and more a question of whether the world could travel to Japan, and if Japan could really afford to invite the world in the spirit of containing the virus. 

This situation changed very rapidly, this is why we were adapting our scenarios, which we have always been discussing with the Organising Committee: mitigating measures, quarantine, many other issues. We then came to the situation where, on the one hand, we were pretty confident that by adapting these protective and mitigating measures, Japan could be able, in four months from now, to organise the Games. At the same time, our doubts were growing whether the world would be ready for these Olympic Games.

We had to address this situation. Japan was very confident to go ahead. Then we saw last Sunday morning the figures from Africa, where we are obviously at the beginning of an outbreak, with many countries being affected. And this is how it started everywhere. We saw the dynamic developments in South America, and in the US and other countries. And this was the moment when I called an emergency meeting of the IOC Executive Board, with the aim to open a discussion with our Japanese hosts, partners and friends, about the postponement of the Games. 

Because we could not manage such a postponement without the Organising Committee, and the full support of Japan, I called President Mori from the Organising Committee before this Executive Board meeting. He had contacted Prime Minister Abe. The result of this conversation was that the Organising Committee and Japan were ready to discuss different scenarios, in particular a postponement.

He heard our commitment that a cancellation would not be one of those scenarios to be considered. We then had the Executive Board meeting on Sunday afternoon, which resulted in opening up the door to study postponement. Hours after this meeting, new alarming information was coming in. We saw more and more travel restrictions. We also heard that the virus was starting to spread on a number of islands in Oceania.

The next morning, we received a declaration from the World Health Organization (WHO) which was pretty alarming. The WHO Director General said that the spreading was accelerating, and he wanted to have an emergency call with the G20 leaders to address this situation.

This then led us to contact the Organising Committee again, to inform them of our wish to propose a decision on the postponement of the Games to be taken already in the phone call scheduled for the next day, between Prime Minister Abe and myself. During this call, Prime Minister Abe, in his introductory remarks, suggested the IOC should decide to postpone the Games.

We came to the conclusion that this decision could not be unilateral by the IOC. Instead, it had to be a joint decision because, in order to organise successful Games, we need to be in full agreement, and we need to be united. This was the sequence of our decision-making. It followed our principles, from the very beginning, of adapting to the situation by monitoring. We also followed the principles of putting the health and safety of the athletes and everybody involved in the Games first and contributing to the containment of the virus.

What significance will the new Games have for humanity?
The significance can be very important because we all hope - and this is what we are working for - that these Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, celebrated in 2021, can be a celebration of humankind after having overcome the unprecedented challenge of the coronavirus. These Olympic Games and the Olympic flame can be a light at the end of this very dark tunnel that humankind is going through at the moment, and which we do not know how long it will be.

What are your thoughts on the timing of the Games and when might you have a decision? What are the considerations that will go into making this decision?
This is a very challenging question and, following the agreement with Prime Minister Abe yesterday, we have asked our Coordination Commission, together with the Organising Committee, to study it in detail. They have now formed a task force with what I find to be a very good name, with a good spirit. The task force calls itself "Here We Go." This needs consultation, first of all, with the 33 International Federations. We will have a telephone conference, I think, by tomorrow. Contacts were already made yesterday by telephone. As a first step, we have to see what the options are. And after having consulted with them, we also have to take into account the sports calendar around the Olympic Games and many, many other issues. I think we should come to a solution as soon as possible, but the first priority should be the quality of this decision and the ability to take the input of all the stakeholders into account: the National Olympic Committees, the athletes, the partners. Of course, the Organising Committee is also key in this.

When did the voice of athletes come into your consideration? Hayley Wickenheiser and IOC Members spoke out last week. The Canadian Olympic and Paralympic Committee decided not to send athletes this summer if the Games were not postponed. What are your thoughts on that?
We have all taken into consideration the athletes' voice, which has played a very important role. We are in constant contact with our Athletes’ Commission, whose Chair is a member of the IOC Executive Board and takes part in any consultation, any decision, any vote.

I also addressed a letter to the athletes a couple of weeks ago. There were calls between our Athletes’ Commission and many athlete representatives around the world. And then finally, in all these consultations last week, we held telephone conferences with all the National Olympic Committees (NOCs) and all the International Federations (IFs). At the end of these conferences, we had a one by one vote from each NOC and each IF, on whether they agreed with the strategy proposed by the IOC Executive Board. In this vote, we had unanimous support, including from the Canadian Olympic Committee.

We then had a phone call with more than 200 athlete representatives. In this phone call, there was not a single voice asking for the cancellation of the Games. The questions revolved around the qualification system, the training conditions, mental health and other questions. We took all of this into consideration and the many voices of athletes that we heard from around the world who were not in this call. Some were critical, and others were very supportive. But this is normal in this very difficult situation of uncertainty.

When you heard that Canada had decided not to participate in the Summer Olympics, what were your thoughts on them taking the lead?
It is the right of every athlete to decide, if they have qualified, if he or she wants to participate in the Olympic Games. I do not think that such a decision can be taken by a majority vote. We have to respect the rights of the athletes and, if an athlete decides not to go to the Games, this is their right.

Postponing the Games will come with a lot of challenges. One of them is the Olympic Village. Is the Olympic Village guaranteed? 
This is one of the many thousands of questions that the task force will have to address. We hope and we will do whatever we can so there is an Olympic Village because the Village is where the heart of the Games is usually beating. We are in an unprecedented situation and have an unprecedented challenge. I guess these postponed Olympic Games will need sacrifices, will need compromises by all the stakeholders. We have to find the best possible solution under the circumstances we are living in. I would be very, very delighted if we could have an Olympic Village in the traditional form because everybody who has once lived in an Olympic Village knows that this is the real Olympic experience. This is a once-in-a-lifetime experience – living under one roof with the whole world, sharing your meals together, celebrating together, discussing together and forming these unique Olympic communities. 

What are the priorities when making these compromises and decisions?
This is like a huge jigsaw puzzle and every piece has to fit. If you take out one piece, the whole puzzle is destroyed. Therefore, everything has to come together and everything is important. This is why I really do not envy the members of this task force. I have seen proof of their professionalism and the dedication of the Organising Committee, which made Tokyo the best-prepared Olympic city ever. I also know about the professionalism of our Coordination Commission and our Olympic Games Department. I'm really confident that we can master this challenge. The Games have never been postponed before. We have no blueprint, but we are nevertheless confident that we can put a beautiful jigsaw puzzle together and have wonderful Olympic Games.

Do you have any regrets about the way you were very insistent the Games were going to open on 24 July as planned? Do you regret being so adamant, considering that caused a lot pressure from athletes and others?
No, because this was the commitment and is the commitment to our Japanese partners. I have tried to explain that the focus was shifting. What we expressed was the confidence in our Japanese partners and friends to organise Olympic Games in July in safe conditions. To this we were committed, and we remain committed to the postponed Games. What changed was the worldwide health situation. We could have decided on a cancellation our own. But for a postponement we needed the full commitment of our Japanese partners. This is what we were looking for with our approach and this is what we achieved yesterday, making it possible that the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 are happening and did not have to be cancelled. We can give athletes the hope and assurance that their Olympic dream can still come true, even with a delay.

How is the IOC itself as an organisation affected by this postponement?
We have a huge challenge now because we have to put the full focus on the organisation of Tokyo 2020. At the same time, the Olympic Winter Games Beijing 2022 and the Youth Olympic Games Dakar 2022 are approaching. We will have to see now what this means for us internally and how to organise this in a way which is also feasible for our staff members, who are already working extremely hard. And all this is not facilitated by the way in which we have to work now – home office. As the task force makes progress, we will have a clearer picture of the full scope of the challenge. Then I am sure we will have to take more measures that concern our internal organisation. This is also up to our Director General and his team.

About the upcoming bid race for 2032, what is the prospect for the timing and the two Koreas co-hosting the Games?
The Future Host Commission is working on the prospect of 2032. We are very much encouraged by the many interested parties we have so far in the informal consultations. We already have some formal declarations of interest too, including from Korea but also from a number of other countries. The Future Host Commission will continue its work on this. But you also have to know that the focus of the IOC now with regard to future Olympic Games is the next edition of the Olympic Winter Games in 2030, on which the respective Commission is also working.

Do you have any regrets about not mentioning the possibility of postponement sooner, given the concerns raised by athletes that they were being asked to prepare as normal in these uncertain times?
You have to see the sequence. There was this phone call with the athletes. Before, I had already addressed a letter to them explaining our situation and taking this uncertainty into account. We have by no means neglected or ignored this. There were a lot of contacts with many National Olympic Committees, with the athletes and with the athlete representatives. And you could already see in the letter, which I wrote a couple of weeks ago, that I was addressing this situation.

You mentioned that the IOC has the ability to cancel unilaterally. Was cancellation ever discussed as an option? 
Of course cancellation was discussed and considered, like all the options on the table. But it was very clear from the beginning that cancellation should not be something the IOC would favour, because our mission is to organise Olympic Games and to make the Olympic dreams of the athletes come true. 

Who actually first proposed the postponement? Was it the IOC or Prime Minister Abe?
We started to open the door for a discussion with the Organising Committee about a postponement on Sunday morning, before the Executive Board meeting. After this meeting, ahead of the phone call with Prime Minister Abe, we put forward to the Organising Committee that, given these dynamic and dramatic developments, we would not only like to speak about a working group and different scenarios, but in fact we would like to have an agreement with our Japanese partners on postponing the Games.

This message was given to Prime Minister Abe by the Organising Committee. In the phone call, he proposed the IOC should decide to postpone the Games. After our conversation and discussion, the result was a joint decision and an agreement between all parties, as to make this happen, we need the commitment of all parties to go ahead.

Even before the weekend, millions of people around the world were living in an unprecedented way in the United States. All across Europe, people were inside their homes. This was well before the weekend. Why is it that it only took until Sunday for you to even open that little door? Surely you had started talking to the Japanese before that. Did they need convincing that this was a serious issue? 
No, we have been discussing with the Japanese partners and with the Organising Committee. They were extremely cooperative like in all other issues, such as when preventive and mitigating measures may have to be deployed. And do not forget that just a couple of weeks ago the measures of many governments were limited until mid-April, some until the beginning of May. We could not see measures being taken until July. And you may have seen the latest declarations in the United States, from President Trump, about the prospect of mid of April to be able to lift the many restrictions. So we were in line with these developments and with the advice of the World Health Organization. Then, they changed their advice through a statement from their Director General on Monday. On the day before, we saw the situation in Africa. From the very beginning, this was a big worry for me personally, but also for all of us, that if the virus would break out in Africa, on this huge continent, with the challenges many countries in Africa have to face, this would be a very dramatic development. This will not only affect Africa but the entire world. This is why it was such a crucial moment. 

You have just mentioned the US President. You have painted a much darker scenario about the Olympics over the weekend, based on the information you got from Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at the WHO. What would be your message to President Trump about the current situation from what you have heard from WHO? You have said it is about to get worse.
No, I have not spoken with Tedros about USA or any particular country, and I have not made any comment about the situation in any particular country. We are not the World Health Organization, and we are not in a position to give advice to any of the world leaders on how to handle this challenge in his or her respective country.

A few IOC sponsors have agreements that expire at the end of the year, like General Electric and Proctor & Gamble. Will their sponsorship agreements be extended to include the 2021 Games?
We have contacted all the sponsors. We have their full support for this decision, and we will now work to implement it. These Games are called the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020. Therefore, for me, it is a logical consequence that the sponsors of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 keep their rights, even if these Games are organised in 2021.

According to some critics, the decision to postpone the Games was made too late. Have you given a single thought to your resignation as IOC president?

Russia has been banned from participating in 2020 Olympics after being sanctioned for doping violations. If in 2021 the ban is lifted, will you consider their participation to the Olympic Games? 
This case is in the hands of the Court of Arbitration for Sport and I will not comment on an ongoing court procedure.

You spoke about sacrifice. When you mention sacrifice, is that financial sacrifice? The postponement of other events? Sacrifice on the part of the media because we have to move to next year? What do you mean exactly by sacrifice?
This is exactly what you are saying. The International Federations will have most likely to adjust their calendars. There will be additional costs for everybody involved. And therefore, I am very pleased and happy that Prime Minister Abe, in the phone call yesterday, gave the commitment of the Japanese government to do everything on their side that is needed. I did the same on behalf of the International Olympic Committee. It includes you, the journalists, it includes the athletes who have to adapt to a new schedule, who may have to adapt to different living conditions during the Games, and I know it will require everybody's efforts to make this edition of the Games a symbol of hope, which it can and should be.

With regard to the timing, is there a chance that the Games would happen before the summer of 2021, perhaps in the spring?
The agreement is that we want to organise these Olympic Games at the latest in summer 2021. That means that the task force can consider the broader picture and this is not restricted just to the summer months. All the options are on the table before or during the summer 2021.

What if at this time next year the pandemic is still ongoing and health experts are advising that it would not be responsible to hold the Games next summer, is there a chance that we would then get another postponement or even a cancellation?

We have established this principle, which we have always been following, and which we will be following also in the future, that we want and we will organise the Olympic Games only if they provide a safe environment for all the participants.

Questions and answers have been edited for improved readability.

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