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Interview

IOC prepares alternative scenarios for Tokyo Olympics, member says

Remarks come after fixing of new dates for Tokyo Games and as virus rages on

Morinari Watanabe tells the Nikkei Asian Review that 90% of international federations supported the 12-month delay. (Photo by Shihoko Nakaoka)

TOKYO -- Since no one knows when the coronavirus pandemic will peter out, it is "no wonder" that the IOC is still considering several scenarios for the now-postponed Tokyo Olympics, Morinari Watanabe, a member of the International Olympic Committee, told the Nikkei Asian Review on Friday.

Watanabe, a Japanese businessman who serves as president of the International Gymnastics Federation and the IOC's boxing task force, recounted hourslong phone calls in which IOC President Thomas Bach solicited the opinions of 50 IOC members and 32 federation chiefs.

"He listened to us one by one," said Morinari, for whom the calls took place past midnight in Tokyo.

Watanabe said it is "no wonder" the IOC would prepare several options in case the pandemic has not been squelched before next summer. Watanabe said the IOC will prepare for several scenarios but will not discuss specifics publicly to prevent creating confusion.

Watanabe's remarks come after the IOC and Japan agreed to delay the Tokyo Olympics to July 2021. In the week since the decision, the number of confirmed coronavirus infections in Tokyo has more than doubled to 684 after new infections came to a record 97 on Thursday. There were another 89 new confirmed cases on Friday.

After some athletes called for a postponement and the Olympic committees of Australia and Canada withdrew their teams, Bach and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe on March 24 agreed to delay the games. On Monday, Bach and the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee agreed to open the games on July 23, 2021.

While some sports federations suggested the event should take place in spring or fall 2021, Watanabe said the 12-month postponement was supported by 90% of international federations. "Many qualifiers that were supposed to be held this spring were postponed or canceled," Watanabe said. "It is impossible to host qualifiers within the year because there are no venues available, so there is no way but to host qualifiers next spring."

Bach's decision to postpone the games was a "good result," Watanabe said. Last month, Watanabe had to make a similar call when he was overseeing Olympic boxing qualifiers in London, where he decided to suspend competition on the third day, as well as all other qualifying events. "I didn't want to do it," he said, "but I had to follow common sense because the boxing federation is my responsibility."

Watanabe said the IOC chose a one-year postponement over two years because it "puts athletes first."

"It is better for athletes to participate in the games as soon as possible, as athletes can change dramatically in two years," Watanabe said, adding that lengthening the delay would add even more to the organizing committee's costs.

As for Tokyo's readiness, "The IOC has never seen preparations like Tokyo 2020," Watanabe said. "It's the first time that venues were ready half a year out from the Olympics."

It is undecided as to whether the IOC will help Tokyo organizers with the cost of rescheduling the event.

Another IOC member, John Coates, on Friday announced that he will take a 20% pay cut as president of the Australian Olympic Committee, anticipating losses for the organization's bottom line this year. Coates also serves as the IOC's chief coordinator with the Tokyo organizing committee.

Watanabe said the biggest challenge right now is rescheduling gymnastics qualifying events. According to Watanabe, 80% of gymnastics spots for Tokyo 2020 have been decided. The remaining 20%, however, cannot be assigned within the year, as qualifiers like the World Cup have been postponed or canceled.

Watanabe said the athletes who have already qualified are secure and that qualifiers will be held "next spring" to decide the remaining 20%. "We will keep the qualification process fair and equitable," he said.

Since 2018, Watanabe has served as one of two Japanese IOC members, along with Yasuhito Yamashita, president of the Japanese Olympic Committee.

In 2017, he became president of the international federation of gymnastics.

Watanabe, who lives partly in Lausanne and partly in Chiba Prefecture, close to Tokyo, started practicing gymnastics when he was in high school and went to Bulgaria to learn more about the sport as a college student. Professionally, Watanabe worked for Japanese retailer Aeon Group, serving as director of the sports business division from 1984.

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