IOC president Thomas Bach: Focus is not if Tokyo Olympics will happen – but how

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach on Wednesday offered a spirited defense of how and why he is confident the Tokyo Olympics will go ahead as scheduled this summer, despite long-simmering doubts due to COVID-19.

In a virtual news conference from IOC headquarters in Switzerland, Bach dismissed the notion of relocating the Olympics to another city or pushing them to 2032 – ideas that were, on their face, far-fetched. And he reiterated that organizers are determined not to fuel any further speculation about the Games, which he said is "hurting the athletes in their preparations" for Tokyo.

"We are not speculating (on) whether the Games are taking place," Bach said. "We are working on how the Games will take place."

To that end, Bach said organizers will soon release "playbooks" of COVID-19 countermeasures, steps that will be taken depending on the state of the pandemic at the time of the opening ceremony on July 23. The Associated Press reported the IOC plans to unveil the playbooks next week.

Notably, Bach also did not rule out the possibility that the Olympics – which were postponed in March for one year due to COVID-19 – could be held behind closed doors, without members of the public in attendance. And he declined to provide any criteria for a possible cancellation, when asked directly by a Japanese reporter.

"Our task is to organize Olympic Games, not to cancel Olympic Games," Bach said.

The 2020 Olympics were pushed back due to the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: KAZUHIRO NOGI, AFP via Getty Images)

Much of the focus in the coming months likely will be on vaccines, and whether or how Olympics athletes are vaccinated prior to the Games.

The IOC said in a news release Tuesday that it would ask national Olympic committees to contact their respective governments about vaccine access for athletes, arguing that athletes should receive doses when they are publicly available due to "their role as ambassadors of their NOCs."

"We always have made it clear that we are not in favor of athletes jumping the queue," Bach said. "In the first lines must be the high-risk group, the health care workers and the people who keep our society alive. That is the first priority."

The 67-year-old Bach has long professed optimism about the Tokyo Olympics, reiterating month after month that organizers are confident in their protocols and think new developments – like vaccines and rapid-testing – will help them hold the Games. 

But his comments Wednesday were among his strongest to date on the subject, and took on a new tone amid recent media reports and developments in Japan, where COVID-19 cases have been rising. 

Some government officials in Japan have called for the Olympics to be cancelled, as polls show diminished support for the event amid the public. The Times of London reported last week that the Japanese government has already privately decided the Games will be cancelled, which the IOC, Japanese government and Tokyo 2020 organizing committee all immediately refuted.

"From a human point of view, I can understand everybody who has concerns about (the) Olympic Games when he or she is living in a lockdown, does not know whether you can go to a restaurant or to see your friends or your family," Bach said Wednesday. "In these circumstances, it is extremely difficult to imagine (the) Olympic Games. There, peronsally, I have all understanding.

"But the responsibility of the government and of the IOC is to look beyond this situation, and there again, we have many good reasons to say it's not about 'whether' the Games are taking place, it's about the 'how.' "

Contact Tom Schad at [email protected] or on Twitter @Tom_Schad.

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