Coronavirus Japan Update: Tokyo 2020 Games Could Be Postponed Until End of Year, Japan's Olympics Minister Says

Japan's Olympic minister has admitted the 2020 Olympics could be postponed until the end of the year because of the coronavirus outbreak.

The games are scheduled to be held in Tokyo between July 24 and August 9 but their fate appears increasingly in doubt as the world battles to contain the virus.

The terms of the agreement between the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Japan stipulate the games have to be held in 2020, but Seiko Hashimoto suggested that did not rule out the possibility of postponing the event.

"The IOC has the right to cancel the games only if they are not held during 2020," Hashimoto told parliament on Tuesday,

"This can be interpreted to mean the games can be postponed as long as they are held during the calendar year. We are doing all we can to ensure that the games go ahead as planned."

The 1964 Tokyo Olympics were held in October, but the games have since shifted permanently to their traditional summer slot.

While organizers may see a postponement as a safety net of sorts, delaying the start of the Olympics would prove an almost insurmountable logistical challenge.

With a few notable exceptions—Major League baseball being one of them—the two-week window that hosts the Olympics is normally free for most major sports.

Postponing the games would clash with the already jam-packed calendars of the different soccer and rugby leagues in Europe.

In the U.S., a delayed start to the Olympics would have a direct impact on the NBA and college basketball.

A postponement would also be the source of a major headache for broadcasters. NBC, for example, is the Olympics' exclusive broadcaster in the U.S., but its networks are scheduled to carry NFL, NBA and NHL from September onward.

Last week, Dick Pound, the IOC's longest-serving member, warned organizers had three months to decide whether the games would go ahead as planned.

Pound, however, admitted that if the games didn't start as scheduled, the prospect of the event being called off could be very real.

"You're probably looking at a cancellation," he added when asked what may happen if the coronavirus outbreak is not brought under control by this summer.

"You just don't postpone something on the size and scale of the Olympics. There's so many moving parts, so many countries and different seasons, and competitive seasons, and television seasons. You can't just say, we'll do it in October," he said.

Over 3,000 people have died since the outbreak began in Wuhan, a city located in China's central Hubei province, late last year.

As this chart provided by Statista shows, the virus has spread to over 70 countries across the world including Japan, which has reported over 1,000 cases and 12 confirmed deaths as of Tuesday.

Coronavirus, COVID-19
Spread of the COVID-19 virus across the world as of March 3. Statista

Last week, the IOC told Newsweek it remained hopeful the games would go ahead as planned and its stance hasn't changed.

"The preparations for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 continue as planned," it said in a statement.

"Countermeasures against infectious diseases constitute an important part of Tokyo 2020's plans to host a safe and secure Games.

"Tokyo 2020 will continue to collaborate with all relevant organizations which carefully monitor any incidence of infectious diseases and will review any countermeasures that may be necessary with all relevant organizations."

Despite the increasing number of people infected, IOC President Thomas Bach reiterated the message and sought to allay fears of the Games being postponed or canceled.

"We are preparing for a successful Olympic Games Tokyo 2020," he told reporters ahead of the IOC's executive board meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, on Tuesday.

With the exception of the two world wars, the Olympics have never been canceled since they began in their modern guise in 1896.

Even at the peak of Cold War tensions, the event proceeded as planned. In 1980, the Moscow Games were boycotted by the U.S. and another 65 countries, before the Soviet Union returned the favor four years later in Los Angeles.

The 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, were threatened by the Zika virus epidemic in the country but went ahead as planned.

Last week, Irish bookmaker Paddy Power cut the odds on the games not going ahead this summer to 4/6, meaning the event is odds-on to be called off or to be held in a country other than Japan.

Canceling the Olympics would be a tremendous blow for the Japanese economy.

According to official figures, Japan has committed 1.45 trillion yen ($13.4 billion) to organizing the Olympics, with $277 million alone spent on building a new Olympic Stadium in Tokyo.

A number of sporting events across the world have either been canceled or been held behind closed doors due to the virus outbreak.

On Tuesday, Tokyo organizers were forced to call off a Paralympic wheelchair rugby test event, while last weekend the Tokyo Marathon was restricted to elite runners.

The J-League, Japan's top-flight soccer league has been called off until March 18 and the country's professional baseball league is playing its preseason games behind closed doors.

IOC, Tokyo 2020
The Olympic Rings are pictured at the International Olympic Committee (IOC) headquarters in Lausanne on March 3, 2020. The coronavirus, which has already killed more than 3,000 people globally, will be discussed at a meeting of the IOC on March 3 and 4, 2020 in Lausanne less than five months before the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Tokyo. Fabrice Coffrini/AFP/Getty