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Olympic Official Seeks Biden’s Help to Save Tokyo Games


TOKYO—The organizers of this year’s Summer Olympics, scheduled to start July 23 in Tokyo, have pushed back hard on recent speculation that the Games will have to be scrapped because of the pandemic. There is one more person they’d like on the team to press the message: President Biden.

“Mr. Biden is dealing with a tough situation with the coronavirus,” said Haruyuki Takahashi, a member of the executive board of Japan’s Olympic organizing committee. “But if he makes a positive statement about the Olympics going ahead, we’d gain strong momentum.”

The U.S. brings the largest contingent of athletes and the richest pot of television money to the Games. It is also Japan’s ally and military protector, so an expression of determination to push ahead would be influential with a skeptical Japanese public and reassure other countries that aren’t sure about sending athletes to Tokyo.


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Uncertainty over the Games is rising as virus cases have rebounded in many countries and vaccination programs have stuttered. A U.K. newspaper reported last week that Japan has given up on hosting the Olympics this year. The government called the report “categorically untrue.”

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach held phone calls on Friday with national Olympic committees around the world to reassure them about the Games and discuss coronavirus vaccinations for athletes. He has said there is no alternative plan for the Tokyo Olympics.

Mr. Takahashi said keeping the U.S. on board with the Games, including Olympic broadcaster NBC, was the most important task.

“It’s up to the U.S. I hate to say it, but Thomas Bach and the IOC are not the ones who are able to make the decision about the Games. They don’t have that level of leadership,” he said.

Mr. Biden hasn’t spoken publicly about the Olympics since becoming president as he puts priority on fighting the pandemic. On Friday, when asked about Mr. Biden’s views on the Olympics, White House press secretary Jen Psaki said she wasn’t familiar with them.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga spoke early Thursday Tokyo time by phone with Mr. Biden. Afterward, Mr. Suga said the two didn’t discuss the Olympics.

Earlier this week, a U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee spokesman said: “We stand in support of the Tokyo Organizing Committee and Japanese government who have given more than seven years of focus and dedication to welcoming the athletes of the world, and honor their efforts to host a safe and successful Games this summer.”

In response to Mr. Takahashi’s suggestion that a strong statement from Mr. Biden was needed, an IOC spokesperson said: “It is regrettable that Mr. Takahashi does not know the facts. First: It is USOPC that decides about the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic team. Second: USOPC has never left a doubt about their participation. Therefore, his comments are obsolete.”

The spokesperson declined to comment on Mr. Takahashi’s suggestion that Mr. Bach and the IOC weren’t able to make a decision about the Games.

Despite polls showing around 80% of the Japanese public oppose holding the Games this year, Mr. Suga, the Japanese leader, has also reiterated a bullish view. “I am determined to host the Games safely and securely in July, in close cooperation with organizations both domestic and abroad,” he said in parliament on Friday.

However, in recent days there has been more open discussion in Japan about alternatives to hosting the Games this summer. Senior figures in a minority party loosely allied with the government have suggested that the Olympic schedule might be pushed back, with Tokyo replacing Paris as host in 2024 or taking the next open slot in 2032. Opposition politicians, meanwhile, have urged Mr. Suga to consider scrapping the event altogether.

Kaori Yamaguchi, a Japan Olympic Committee member, said the IOC needed to be more open about possible alternatives to the Games this year. She said it was worth discussing the option of postponing the event to an unspecified point in the future. If Japan presses ahead with the Olympics and the Games run into problems such as clusters of infection, it would tarnish their legacy and make countries less willing to host the event, she said.

“It’s scary to have no Plan B,” she said.

The global spread of coronavirus has led to officials postponing the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games. For athletes, the delay evokes mixed emotions. WSJ spoke to five athletes from around the globe to understand what the postponement means to them. Photo composite by George Downs (Originally Published March 25, 2020)

Write to Alastair Gale at

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