Skip to main content

An athlete carries the Olympic torch during a flame handover ceremony in Athens on March 19, 2020.POOL New/Reuters

Officials with the International Olympic Committee travelled to Greece last week for the ceremonial lighting of the torch that symbolizes the peace and hope that lie at the heart the Summer and Winter Games.

An actor dressed as a pagan priestess lit the torch at the Temple of Hera in ancient Olympia, using a mirror to focus the sun’s rays and ignite the flame. The torch then began what was to be a seven-day journey across the homeland of the Olympics, carried by athletes and celebrities. Large crowds turned out to see actors, such as Gerald Butler and Billy Zane, serve as torchbearers.

Within hours, the relay was cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemic.

“There was a time, when, you know, in the ancient days, all wars would stop for the Olympics,” Mr. Zane lamented.

Well, this isn’t that type of war and the coronavirus isn’t open to diplomacy. Scientists have yet to talk it into agreeing to a temporary ceasefire. The IOC was wise to cancel the Greek leg of the torch relay.

And now, it and host country Japan need to decide whether to go one very large step further, and cancel the Tokyo Games that are due to start on July 24.

So far, the Japanese government and the IOC insist that they have no plan to cancel or to postpone the start date.

Given the immense costs of staging an Olympic Games, the political capital already spent by Japanese politicians, the scale of the planning involved and the financial implications of cancelling, their wish to stay the course is understandable.

The IOC, one likes to think, would have already cancelled the Tokyo Games were they to be held in the coming weeks. The COVID-19 pandemic is still in its early stages, and slowing its spread depends on an international effort to keep people from travelling and congregating through the winter and spring.

But what happens this summer? July 24 is still four months away, and there’s something appealing about the organizers’ implicit suggestion that the world will be back to normal by then, with athletes and tourists once again at liberty to fly around the globe, without restrictions.

The problem is that the IOC’s outlook appears to be too rosy. It is of course to be hoped that the pandemic can be brought quickly to heel, with a return to normalcy capped by the reassuring spectacle of the Olympics. A well-timed Games could be a booster shot to both public morale and the economy.

But the odds don’t favour that result. There is a real chance that even if infections have abated by this summer, it will be too soon for non-essential travel to return to its former levels.

Doing so could unflatten the curve, so to speak, and reignite the spread of the coronavirus. Holding the Olympics risks sending a misleading signal about the state of the pandemic to people desperate for good news.

Continuing on the same timetable also poses a threat to the athletes.

A growing number have complained that their training requirements expose them to infection risks by obliging them to ignore social-distancing practices. Canadian hockey legend Hayley Wickenheiser, a member of the IOC committee, has called the plan to forge ahead with the Tokyo Games “insensitive and irresponsible.”

She’s right. Even if the Games themselves can serve as a uniting spectacle in hard times, the organization behind them is no pillar of altruism. The IOC imperiously expects the world to run on its schedule and to play by its rules. For most observers, it inspires more cynicism than gratitude.

Here, then, is a chance for the grey men of the IOC to change their image by putting their trademarked behemoth at the service of a world in turmoil, instead of enforcing its own timetable for its own ends with little regard for the state of things.

They could postpone the Tokyo Games to next spring, when Japan’s cherry blossoms will be blooming, or until next July. Travel will be safe again, and the planet will welcome an international event that symbolizes the human ability to overcome hardship and difficulty.

Why continue with the risk of having to cancel the Games a month from now? Delay the Olympics for a year and do it now. It would be a symbol of global solidarity today and hope for tomorrow.