The Coronavirus and the Postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, Explained

After weeks of uncertainty amid the coronavirus pandemic, the International Olympic Committee and local organizers of the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo announced on Tuesday that the Games would be postponed.

It was a big deal. The Summer Games make up the world’s largest sporting event, a multibillion-dollar endeavor that every four years brings together thousands of athletes from hundreds of countries in dozens of sports, hundreds of thousands of fans and boatloads of money from big international brands.

Here’s what happened and what could happen next:

What went down, exactly?

The Games were postponed until 2021. No specific date was decided, but it’s unusual to shift a date for the Olympics. They have been canceled only for world wars in 1916, 1940 and 1944, and never postponed.

But haven’t all big sporting events been postponed or canceled?

The vast majority in the spring, yes. But even as all the major sports leagues and events in the world — basketball, soccer, golf, you name it — ground to a halt over the past few weeks in the face of the coronavirus pandemic, the organizers of the 2020 Tokyo Games had declined to make a decision on their own event, signaling instead that they’d wait to see how everything played out.

Many people found that stance unsatisfactory, to say the least. Several called it out as tone deaf and, more important, unsafe. Over the past week, a wave of voices calling for a delay — including prominent national Olympic committees, global sports federations and individual athletes — grew too big to ignore, and on Tuesday night in Japan, the organizers announced that the Games would be delayed by up to a year.

When were the Olympics supposed to take place?

The opening ceremony of the Games was scheduled for July 24, in Tokyo’s national stadium.

And when will the Games be held now?

We don’t know yet. All the organizers have said is that the Games would be held sometime after 2020 and no later than the summer of 2021.

What time frame makes the most sense?

Plopping the existing schedule for the 2020 Olympics onto the very same dates in 2021 seems like the simplest thing to do. But it would create scheduling conflicts with some other major international sporting events, like the world championships for track and field and swimming. Holding the Games earlier — say, in the spring of 2021 — could work, but they might then overlap with the schedules of some domestic sports leagues, like the N.B.A. and all the big ones in European soccer. A springtime Olympics would also leave very little time for all the various athlete qualification events around the world that need to take place before the Olympics. So some tough decisions still need to be made.

So Tokyo 2020 will now be known as Tokyo 2021?

Um, no. They’re asking us to keep calling it Tokyo 2020. It may not really make sense, but it’ll let them avoid redoing a bunch of stuff related to the branding and marketing of the event. (People will presumably call it what they want.)

If the Olympics are every four years, what about the Winter Games?

Both the Summer and Winter Olympic Games are held every four years. Since 1994, though, the two events have been staggered, so that there are an Olympics every two years. The next two Summer Games after Tokyo, for example, are scheduled to take place in Paris in 2024 and Los Angeles in 2028. The next Winter Games will be in Beijing in 2022 and Milan in 2026.

What will the athletes do now?

A lot of them are asking that very question. Thousands of athletes around the world were planning, or hoping, to compete at the Games this year. Most of them will have to keep training — a task more complicated in a pandemic — and just aim now to reach their peak of performance sometime in 2021 instead of late this summer. But the postponement will complicate things for a lot of them. Not all Olympians, for instance, are rich and famous. Many of them have other jobs, go to school or have life plans that they have put on hold to pursue their athletic careers. They have to decide whether it’s worth their time to wait another year for the event to take place.

What about people who have tickets for the Olympics?

They’re working on that. Tickets had been in high demand, in Japan and around the world, and more than five million of them had been sold. Another round of sales was set to begin in May, but that has been delayed for now. Toshiro Muto, the chief executive of the organizing committee in Tokyo, noted that the organizers would “make sure not to inconvenience people as much as possible.” But, he admitted, they weren’t yet sure how it would all play out.

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