Ian Thorpe, the five-times Olympic champion, has urged athletes to put health ahead of their Olympic dreams as Games bosses contemplate the possible impact of the coronavirus on Tokyo 2020.
The virus, believed to have originated in a market selling livestock in the central Chinese city of Wuhan late last year, has infected more than 80,000 people and killed more than 2,700, the vast majority in China.
The spread of the virus is now wide, across Asia, including Japan, the Middle East, Europe, while the United States and Australia are implementing stringent border controls and implementing other measures designed to contain the outbreak. Moves includes the development of a vaccine to combat the virus, Chinese doctors the first to suggest they have now found a vaccine that appears to work and is being put through clinical tests.
The international sports calendar has been hit by postponements and cancellations far and wide, while IOC member Dick Pound broke ranks to suggest that the dangers of the virus could impact directly on the Olympic Games, with cancellation more likely that postponement because of the financial hit that would be involved.
Now, Thorpe has added his voice, telling reporters today:
“I would most definitely be concerned. What we need to know is to use some of the best expert disease specialists to find out what is the risk to the team. What is the risk to the other nations and how can we have an Olympic Games, one that is safe, that doesn’t put athletes at risk?
“I think the decision should come down to each individual athlete. But whether or not they want to compete, that they should take their health into consideration first.”
Australia’s Olympic team chef de mission Ian Chesterman said on Wednesday the coronavirus was a serious concern but athletes were being instructed to prepare as if they were going to Tokyo as scheduled.
Japan Seeks To Contain Outbreak & Safeguard Tokyo2020
At a Japanese Government task force meeting on Wednesday on the virus outbreak, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said he was asking organizers to cancel or postpone major sports or cultural events over the next two weeks.
“The next one-to-two weeks is extremely important for the prevention of the escalation of the infection,” Abe said. “We ask organizers to cancel, postpone or scale down the size of such events.”
He did not name specific events but said he was speaking about nationwide events that attract large crowds.
Tokyo organizing committee
CEO Toshiro Muto told reporters at a press conference in Tokyo that a three-month window for decision-making was in sight but added, in comments translated from Japanese: “Our basic thoughts are that we will go ahead with the Olympic and Paralympic Games as scheduled. For the time being, the situation of the coronavirus infection is, admittedly, difficult to predict, but we will take measures such that we’ll have a safe Olympic and Paralympic Games.”
The Olympics open on July 24 with 11,000 athletes, followed by the Paralympics on Aug. 25 with 4,400 athletes.
The three-month window applies to all involved, including athletes, coaches, programs, sponsors, broadcasters, press, parents and fans: 7.8 million tickets are available for the Olympics and 2.3 million for the Paralympics.
Japanese virologist Dr. Hitoshi Oshitani, who formerly worked for the WHO, said last week he could not forecast what the situation would be in five months.
On Tuesday, Pound said: “A lot of things have to start happening. You’ve got to start ramping up your security, your food, the Olympic Village, the hotels. The media folks will be in their building their studios.”
Muto suggested that there was little point in speculating and that action was more important. He said: “The Prime Minister has announced measures to be taken over the next two weeks and so we, too, are taking that into consideration.
“The biggest problem would be if this novel coronavirus infections spreads far and wide, so the most important thing to do is to take measures to prevent that from happening.”
He also said the torch relay would go ahead. It is to start in Japan on March 26 in Fukushima prefecture, located 250 kilometers (150 miles) northeast of Tokyo.
“We absolutely do not think of canceling (the torch relay),” Muto said. “We’d like to think about how to implement it while preventing the spread of infection, including scaling down, or other ways.”
While Olympic organisers lean towards ‘show must go on’, the Olympics Minister Seiko Hashimoto noted the need to put safety first.
Speaking in parliament on Wednesday, she said “We believe it is necessary to make a worst case scenario in order to improve our operation to achieve success.” Planning was to make sure “that we can safely hold the Tokyo Olympics”.
Her comments came at a time when the coronavirus outbreak is having an impact on trade and finance markets, travel-industry stocks among the worst hit. In the sports sector, many teams are now facing decisions as to whether to cancel and rearrange pre-Games training camps in Asia. Yesterday, the Colombian Olympic Committee announced that it had cancelled planned pre-Olympic training camps in southern Japan.