Photo/Illutration Japanese Olympic Minister Seiko Hashimoto comments on the impact from the spread of the new coronavirus on the Tokyo Olympics after an Olympic flame ceremony in Ishinomaki, Miyagi Prefecture, on March 20. (Toshiyuki Hayashi)

Olympic organizers have been under mounting international pressure to change the plan for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which is to start in four months, due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.

On March 22, the International Olympic Committee said it will start looking into options including postponing the event.

Speaking before the Diet, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe echoed the announcement, saying, "we may have no choice but to make the decision to put off (the Games)."

The Olympic governing body and the Japanese government have made the inevitable decision, given the growing calls in the international sports community for the cancellation or postponement of the sporting extravaganza in response to the pandemic.

The IOC said that over the next four weeks it will consider alternative scenarios for the Games, including postponement, but not cancellation.

But the period of suspense must be as short as possible. The IOC should make the decision in a way that limits confusion and agitation as much as possible. It could, for example, make the formal decision to postpone the Summer Games swiftly and then work out details, such as the new schedule and other related issues.

The IOC's waffling on the issue in recent weeks has awakened international distrust of the organization. On March 17, the IOC held an emergency teleconference with representatives from national Olympic committees and reconfirmed its commitment to holding the Games in Tokyo in July.

Two days later, however, Thomas Bach, the president of the IOC, caused a stir by admitting the possibility of changing the plan in an interview with a U.S. newspaper.

"Of course we are considering different scenarios," he said.

Two days later, Bach again muddied the waters, telling a German radio station that the gigantic event cannot be postponed "like a football match next Saturday."

Granted that the situation has been in a flux with the spread of the virus accelerating, it should be pointed out that the IOC's tactless handling of public communication has nonplussed athletes and other people involved.

Japan has also bumbled in dealing with the situation.

The Japanese government's precarious performance has raised serious questions about the quality of its communication with the IOC, just as it did last year when the venue for the Olympic marathons was changed from Tokyo to Sapporo. 

In hammering out a new plan for the Games, both sides should work together to narrow gaps in communication and views between them. They also need to clarify the challenges that have to be dealt with, possible options, the advantages and disadvantages of each, and plans to overcome new problems that may arise and the expected additional costs and how they should be shared.

These factors need to be described to the international community in an easy-to-understand manner.

One idea the Olympic decision makers should seriously consider is rescheduling the Olympics and Paralympics to a season other than summer.

There is a long list of challenges the mission will pose. These include ensuring fair conditions to allow athletes to post their best performances on a level playing field, booking venues for events and securing volunteers to support various operations, and rebuilding systems to deal with huge numbers of spectators.

Above all, organizers need to determine and explain the criteria for holding the Games and who will make the final decision to proceed and until when and in what procedures.

Clearly, they need to step up their cooperation with the World Health Organization.

It should not be forgotten that the Olympics is integrated with the Paralympics. Depending on their disabilities, athletes taking part in the Paralympics could be vulnerable to infection with the coronavirus.

Dealing with health issues concerning disabled athletes requires even more scientific knowledge and careful and educated decisions than in the case of those without disabilities.

The pandemic has underscored afresh the fact that sports can be enjoyed only in peaceful, safe and stable circumstances.

Olympic organizers have to tackle the tough challenge of ensuring the health and safety of athletes and spectators while considering the interests of a wide range of stakeholders.

--The Asahi Shimbun, March 24