A vendor wears a mask in Yokohama’s Chinatown, near Tokyo where the Olympics are due to start in July. Photograph: Jae C Hong/AP
Tokyo Olympic Games 2020

IOC insists Tokyo Olympics will go ahead despite coronavirus


It is the ultimate sporting get-together: 11,000 athletes from 200 countries all striving to live up to the Olympic motto – faster, higher and stronger.

But as this year’s Games in Tokyo approaches it is not the usual concerns – the potential for high temperatures or the logistics of putting on the world’s biggest sporting event – that is the biggest problem for organisers. It is the coronavirus.

On Friday, China reported 5,090 new cases and 121 new deaths in the previous 24 hours, Japan has also had its first death as the virus continues to spread.

For now, however, the International Olympic Committee position is clear: there is absolutely no chance the Games, which are due to start in late July, will be postponed despite the growing global health emergency.

But athletics was similarly upbeat before the World Indoor Championships, due to take place in Nanjing in March, was cancelled. And so was Formula One before the Shanghai Grand Prix was also shelved.

The virus has also wiped out golf tournaments, matches, and almost all sports in China – including Olympic qualifying events.

What is worrying medical experts is that with so many people packed into a small area there is a possibility for infectious diseases to spread. This month Toshiro Muto, the chief executive of the Tokyo organising committee, voiced some of those concerns by saying he was “seriously worried” the spread of coronavirus “could throw cold water on the momentum toward the Games”.

Muto later backed down and this week the organising committee’s president Yoshiro Mori said he was clear that “We are not considering a cancellation or postponement of the Games”.

An IOC spokesperson also said all preparations for Tokyo 2020 were going ahead as planned. “The IOC is in contact with the World Health Organisation, as well as its own medical experts,” he said. “We have full confidence that the relevant authorities, in particular in Japan, China and the World Health Organisation, will take all the necessary measures to address the situation.”

Craig Spence, the spokesperson for the International Paralympic Committee, insisted the Paralympics will go ahead in late August. “Fear is spreading quicker than the virus, and it is important that we quell that fear,” he said.

It is worth noting that next month’s Tokyo marathon is going ahead – although organisers have announced that runners based in China can defer until 2021 as many will have trouble travelling to Japan. They will also issue masks and hand sanitisers during race week.

Meanwhile it remains unclear whether Chinese athletes due to compete in sporting events in Britain in the next month will take part.

Public Health England confirmed there are currently no restrictions on Chinese players coming to the prestigious All-England Badminton Championships or the Gymnastics World Cup, both of which will be staged in Birmingham.

However it is rumoured from within the sport that the Chinese badminton players will withdraw from all European tournaments this month, as well as from one in Germany the week before the All England event.

The chief executive of Badminton England, Adrian Christy, said the advice the organiser has been given is to carry on preparations for the All England as planned.

“We are monitoring the coronavirus very closely and are in touch with Public Health England several times a week – and they have been very helpful indeed,” he said. “The advice we have been given is to carry on our preparations for the All England as planned, and we are doing that.

“We are also in regular touch with our international governing body who are monitoring this from a global perspective.”

Birmingham will also stage a World Cup gymnastics meeting next month and a spokesperson for GB Gymnastics insisted that “as it stands it’s business as usual.

“We continue to plan for the Chinese delegations competing in Birmingham at the end of next month,” he added.