The collapse of sports events worldwide over the rapidly spreading new coronavirus heaped pressure on the Tokyo Olympics on Friday as US President Donald Trump suggested delaying the Games by a year.
Formula One’s Australian Grand Prix and The Players Championship, one of golf’s most prestigious events, were the latest to fall in a period when the virus has laid waste to the sporting calendar.
Football’s Premier League, with a worldwide audience of billions, is also in question after Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta and Chelsea midfielder were confirmed to have the disease.
The PGA Tour golf season, the men’s tennis tour, NBA basketball, Major League Baseball and a host of top-flight football leagues have all been put on hold or forced behind closed doors.
The impact of COVID-19, which has killed nearly 5,000 people according to an AFP tally, is accelerating just over four months from the Tokyo Olympics’ start on July 24.
European football chiefs will consider whether to postpone Euro 2020, this year’s other major international sports event due to start in mid-June, at a meeting next week.
Tokyo Olympics organisers, Japan’s government and the International Olympic Committee have been adamant the Games will go ahead as planned despite the global panic.
But Trump became the first foreign leader to break ranks and raise the prospect of delaying the Olympics until 2021.
“Maybe they postpone it for a year,” Trump told reporters in the Oval Office, 19 weeks before the opening ceremony in Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium.
“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.
Trump’s comments came just hours after actresses dressed as ancient Greek priestesses held the ceremonial flame-lighting at a ruined temple in the original Olympia, Greece.
– ‘Lots of options!’ –
Trump later discussed the Olympics with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe by telephone, before tweeting there were “Lots of options!”
But Tokyo’s governor Yuriko Koike was unmoved, telling reporters on Friday: “For Tokyo, there is no option of cancellation at all.”
Japan’s Olympic minister Seiko Hashimoto said: “Neither the IOC nor the organising committee is thinking about delaying or cancelling the Games at all.”
Asked about the possibility of scaling back the number of spectators, Hashimoto said: “We are not thinking about that at all.”
In Melbourne, drivers were just hours from the first practice session when the season-opening Australian Grand Prix was axed on Friday, after a McLaren team member was diagnosed with COVID-19.
The last-minute cancellation raises fears for other races including next week’s Bahrain Grand Prix, which has already barred fans.
The Chinese Grand Prix has been postponed, while the inaugural Formula One race in Vietnam on April 5 is also at risk.
The Players Championship was called off after the first round as the PGA Tour cancelled another four tournaments leading up to the Masters, starting on April 8.
Premier League chiefs will hold emergency talks later on Friday “regarding future fixtures”, which look uncertain with Arsenal and Chelsea both in lockdown.
Arsenal’s game against Brighton was postponed after Arteta’s positive test, before Chelsea’s Hudson-Odoi became the first Premier League player confirmed with the coronavirus.
Leicester City and Manchester City also have players in isolation because of fears over the disease.
Spain’s top two divisions have been suspended for at least two weeks after Real Madrid put its team in quarantine, while Italy’s Serie A is on hold and France’s Ligue 1 will continue in empty stadiums.
Indian cricket chiefs will meet on Saturday to decide the fate of the lucrative Indian Premier League, scheduled to start on March 29, after the government called for it to be cancelled.
Australia’s one-day international against New Zealand went ahead behind closed doors in Sydney but the hosts were without seam bowler Kane Richardson, who is quarantined and has been tested for COVID-19.