Despite virus, IOC unwavering on Olympics starting in July

LAUSANNE, Switzerland (AP) — Despite worldwide concern and speculation about whether the fast-spreading virus outbreak will affect the Tokyo Olympics, the IOC’s leadership is not joining in the debate.

“Neither the word cancellation nor the word postponement was even mentioned,” International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach told a news conference Wednesday about the second day of executive board meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland.

Bach sought to project calm assurance after holding a conference call with local organizers. In Tokyo, officials then briefed local media, some of whom wore protective masks.

Asked how he could be so confident the July 24-Aug. 9 Olympics will go ahead as scheduled, Bach replied: “Because we talk to the experts.”

“We are a sports organization and we follow the advice of the World Health Organization,” Bach said, referring to the United Nations agency based around 60 kilometers (40 miles) away in Geneva.

The coronavirus that emerged in China late last year had infected more than 90,000 people globally by Wednesday and caused over 3,100 deaths. Serious outbreaks have been experienced in Iran and Italy.

Federal authorities in the IOC’s home country Switzerland, which shares a border with Italy, have banned public gatherings of 1,000 people until mid-March to help contain the virus spreading.

Around 100 people were in a conference room at IOC headquarters to hear Bach use broadly similar answers to bat away virus questions from different angles.

“I will not add fuel to the flame of speculation,” Bach said when asked about deadline for deciding whether to postpone the Tokyo Games.

Asked if the WHO declaring a pandemic would change the IOC’s position, Bach said: “I will not take part in any way of such kind of mere speculations.”

Bach said he took confidence from having met the WHO’s director general and other leading officials last Friday. A task force of officials from the WHO, IOC and Japanese sports and public officials has also been working together for around three weeks.

The virus has affected qualifying competitions for many of the 33 sports on Tokyo’s medal program, which some postponed, venues changed, and travel issues for athletes from China and elsewhere.

“This is challenging, yes,” Bach acknowledged, “but I must also say I’m pretty proud of the Olympic movement, for the great solidarity and flexibility everybody has shown so far.”

Bach, who won a gold medal in fencing at the 1976 Montreal Olympics, was also asked if he had experienced a period as stressful as this in his 50 years as an athlete and sports official.

“Many,” he said, citing concerns of nuclear war with North Korea before the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, and the zika virus before the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics. He also noted boycotts at each Summer Games from 1976 to 1984 and the terrorist attack at the 1972 Munich Olympics.

“Do you need more?” he said.

In IOC board decisions on Wednesday:

— The Olympic push toward gender equality means a change in flag-bearing protocol for the opening ceremony at the Tokyo Games. Each country will be encouraged to pick one man and one woman who jointly carry their national flag.

— The IOC’s annual meeting of members, known as the Session, will be held in Mumbai, India, in 2023.

Bach said Olympic sports wanted to tap into the potential of youth in the world’s second-most populated nation. India has a population around 1.3 billion people.

— The IOC now formally aims to be “climate positive” by 2030, with carbon savings exceeding the impact of its operations. The goal will be included in contracts with Olympic host cities.


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