What I'm Hearing: USA TODAY Sports' Christine Brennan spoke with IOC member Dick Pound, who said the 2020 Tokyo Games would be postponed due to the coronavirus. USA TODAY
For thousands of athletes around the world, it would have once been considered a nightmare scenario.
And on Tuesday, it became official.
In an unprecedented and unavoidable move, the International Olympic Committee and Japanese government agreed to postpone the 2020 Summer Olympics "to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021" due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.
It is the first time in modern Olympic history that a global health issue has disrupted the Games.
"The leaders agreed that the Olympic Games in Tokyo could stand as a beacon of hope to the world during these troubled times," the IOC and Tokyo 2020 organizing committee said in a joint statement. "And that the Olympic flame could become the light at the end of the tunnel in which the world finds itself at present."
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Organizers said the Olympic flame will stay in Japan during the delay, and the Games will also continue to officially be called "Tokyo 2020," even as they move to 2021.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and IOC president Thomas Bach formally agreed to the decision Tuesday, amid intensifying pressure and public pleas for clarity from athletes and governing bodies alike.
Their announcement came less than 24 hours after long-standing IOC member Dick Pound first told USA TODAY Sports that the Games would not begin as scheduled on July 24.
While the Olympics have previously been canceled during periods of war, and complicated by boycotts, this is the first time they have ever been suspended. It is not immediately clear whether the Games will be moved to the summer of 2021 or the spring, when Japan's famous cherry blossoms are in bloom.
"A lot can happen in one year," said Toshiro Muto, CEO of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee. "So we have to think about what we have to do."
The decision to move the multi-billion dollar event will have widespread political, legal, logistical and financial ramifications, both locally in Japan and around the world.
It also figures to cause headaches and heartaches across the international sports community — for federations and leagues that must now adapt their schedules, and for the 11,000 athletes who had spent years training to compete this summer.
A previous version of this video incorrectly stated how many people the 1918 Spanish influenza killed. USA TODAY
Despite its complexities, this path became increasingly inevitable in recent weeks, as the novel coronavirus, also known as COVID-19, continued to spread. The disease, which was first identified in Wuhan, China in December, has now infected people in more than 160 countries across six continents, shuttering entire cities and leaving thousands dead.
In the process, it has also wreaked havoc on the Olympic qualifying model, forcing several international sports federations and national Olympic committees to postpone or cancel key events. Some athletes and coaches were stranded in foreign countries due to travel restrictions. Training regimens were disrupted. The Greek leg of the Olympic torch relay was held without fans, then canceled.
Yet despite those disruptions, and the rapid spread of the coronavirus, IOC officials and representatives from the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee maintained for months that the Olympics would not be affected. Bach urged athletes to continue training as usual, even as questions about the Games continued to swirl.
That determined approach changed as the opening ceremony drew closer and global health concerns about holding the event lingered.
Athletes helped fuel the process by speaking out publicly, or pressuring their sport's governing body or national Olympic committee to take a stand. In the United States, for example, leaders from swimming, track and field and gymnastics all urged the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee to publicly call for postponement, which it later did.
"This summer was supposed to be a culmination of your hard work and life’s dream, but taking a step back from competition to care for our communities and each other is the right thing to do," USOPC chief executive officer Sarah Hirshland wrote to athletes after Tuesday's decision. "Your moment will wait until we can gather again safely."
Retired Canadian hockey player Hayley Wickenheiser, the first IOC member to publicly call for postponement, described the postponement on Twitter as a "best case scenario" and "the message athletes deserved to hear."
The move to postpone the Games figures to have dramatic financial implications for several stakeholders, including the IOC – whose budget relies in large part on income from broadcast partners – and Japan, which has already spent more than $28 billion to host these Games, according to the Associated Press.
One Japanese securities firm estimated earlier this month that a cancellation or postponement of the Olympics would reduce the country’s annual growth domestic product growth by 1.4% in 2020.
The IOC has paid insurance premiums north of $12 million in both 2016 and 2018 to protect against the possible disruption of the Olympics, but Bach did not provide a figure for this year’s premium when asked by reporters earlier this month. The IOC had nearly $2 billion in reserve as of its most recent annual report, which was released last summer.
Japanese citizens have embraced their role as hosts of the Games, buying up tickets as soon as they became available. Organizers expected to sell about 7.8 million tickets, with at least 70% of them going to Japanese residents.
Beyond finances, this decision will also cause substantial disruptions for athletes, many of whom have put off college or other opportunities to train full-time with the objective of peaking in July. Now, they will have to put their training on hold. Some might be forced to give them up altogether — their Olympic dreams dashed, a nightmare come true.
Contributing: Nancy Armour, Rachel Axon, Christine Brennan and The Associated Press
Contact Tom Schad at email@example.com or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.