JAPAN’s Olympic Minister said yesterday that the contract for the hosting of the Tokyo Olympic Games only specifies that the event must take place during the Olympic 2020 Games. Seiko Hashimoto’s answer to a question in the upper house of Parliament implies that the Olympic 2020 may take place later in the year and not start on July 24 as scheduled. The Paralympic Games will open on August 25.

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The Tokyo Olympic is threatened by a rapidly spreading virus that has been blamed for 12 deaths in Japan and has closed most schools, sports competitions and Olympic events in the country. The virus which started in China has been detected in at least 70 countries, with 90,000 cases and 3,100 deaths reported.

“The IOC has the right to cancel matches only if they do not take place in 2020, Hashimoto told Parliament. This can be interpreted to mean that the games can be postponed as long as they take place during the calendar year.”

IOC President Thomas Bach and Tokyo organizers have repeatedly stated that they expect the Olympic 2020 Games to open on schedule. Others have suggested that the spread of the virus could force the cancellation, postponement or displacement of events to other cities. Yesterday at a scheduled meeting of the Executive Board, the IOC issued a statement expressing “its full commitment to the success of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games, which will take place from July 24 to August 9, 2020”.

In an interview last week with only Japanese media, Bach refused to “fuel the flames of speculation” over information regarding the cancellation or postponement. Hashimoto was asked if she thought Olympic 2020 should take place even if the coronavirus epidemic is worse than it is now.

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“We are making the utmost effort so that we don’t have to face that situation,” she said.

Any decision to postpone the games would affect international broadcasters, who would have primacy over any change. The International Olympic Committee derives 73% of its $ 5.7 billion revenues over a four-year Olympic cycle from the sale of broadcast rights. About half of this television revenue comes from the American network NBC.

The 1964 Tokyo Olympic was held in October. But the games are now in the summer, largely because it’s the only time slot open to sports broadcasters. In the fall, North America is full of NFL, college football, baseball, basketball, and hockey. Europe is full of football in England, Spain, Germany, France, and Italy, not to mention rugby and cricket where these sports are popular.

Former IOC vice-president Dick Pound said in an interview last week that a decision regarding the Olympic 2020 is likely to be made in the coming months. Kevan Gosper, another former IOC vice-president and now an honorary member of the IOC, also said the cancellation was possible.

The 2020 Olympic Games have only been canceled three times, all in wartime. Yesterday, the Tokyo Olympic organizers were forced to cancel a Paralympic wheelchair rugby test following suggestions by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to host large-scale events for several weeks.

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The organizers of Tokyo still have 17 test events on their program. The last one is scheduled to end on May 8. Most are small events featuring only local athletes. The most important is a gymnastics test from April 4 to 6 which should involve non-Japanese athletes.

Japan’s professional baseball league plays pre-season games in stadiums without supporters, and the J-League football suspended the game until March 18. The famous Tokyo Olympic Marathon took place on Sunday with only a few hundred elite runners, instead of a public celebration for 30,000 participants.

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