IOC will follow WHO advice on Olympics cancellation, says Bach

BERLIN (AFP) – The International Olympic Committee will follow the World Health Organisation's recommendation on whether to cancel or postpone this year's Tokyo Olympics over the coronavirus pandemic, IOC chief Thomas Bach said Thursday.

In an interview with German television ARD, Bach said his organisation has been in regular contact with WHO experts since mid-February over the issue.

“We will follow the advice of the WHO,” he said, adding that the IOC was now still working towards preparing for a “successful” Games.

With cancellations of Olympic qualifiers piling up as countries unroll drastic measures to halt the contagion, Bach acknowledged that there are ''serious problems with qualification competitions”.

“Here we will have to react very flexibly,” he said, adding that this could be through postponing competitions or changing qualification criteria.

What is key, he said, is that athletes, particularly those from countries hard hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, must be offered “fair qualification under these very difficult conditions”.

Japanese organizers have so far insisted that the pandemic will not derail the Games scheduled to run from July 24 to August 8, even if major sporting events, travel and financial markets are already seeing massive disruption worldwide.

On Thursday, US President Donald Trump became the first foreign leader to suggest delaying the Tokyo Olympics.

The US leader said that another alternative – holding competitions in empty stadiums – would be even worse than forcing a delay.

Japanese government officials insisted Friday they have no plans to alter the Olympics, including holding it without spectators, after US President Donald Trump proposed a delay over the coronavirus.

The Japanese government officials and the IOC have insisted preparation for the Games is on track, with no expectations of a postponement or cancellation.

''There is no change in the government policy in that we closely cooperate with the IOC, the organizing committee, and the Tokyo metropolitan government to steadily prepare for holding the Games as scheduled,'' government spokesman Yoshihide Suga told reporters.

He said Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and Trump had held a phone call to discuss the outbreak as well as the Olympics.

''In the telephone talks with President Trump, the prime minister mentioned our efforts toward holding the Games, and the president said he highly values Japan's efforts on transparency,'' Suga said.

He did not say whether Trump had repeated his suggestion, made a day earlier, that the Games might need to be delayed.

''I would say maybe they postpone it for a year,'' Trump told reporters in the Oval Office on Thursday.

''You know, I like that better than I like having empty stadiums all over the place. I think if you cancel it, make it a year later, that's a better alternative than doing it with no crowd,'' he said.

The suggestion was roundly dismissed by Japan's Olympic minister Seiko Hashimoto.

''I'm aware of President Trump's remarks but neither the IOC nor the organising committee is thinking about delaying or cancelling the Games at all,'' she said at a regular briefing Friday.

Asked about the possibility of scaling back the number of spectators, Hashimoto said: ''We are not thinking about that at all.''

Suga also said the government ''doesn't envisage'' either a Games without spectators or the prospect of athletes withdrawing from the event.

IOC chief Thomas Bach told German television ARD on Thursday that the body would follow recommendations by the World Health Organization, but for now continues to work for a ''successful'' Games.

He acknowledged however that cancellations of Olympic qualifiers are starting to pose ''serious problems''.