Tokyo 2020 Olympics postponed over coronavirus concerns

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics have been postponed, Japan's Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced Tuesday.

Abe said Japan and the International Olympic Committee came to an agreement during a phone call with the head of the IOC, Thomas Bach, following growing calls for the games to be delayed or canceled because of the concerns around coronavirus pandemic.

The Japanese leader told reporters after the call that they agreed that the games would not be canceled and will be held, at the very latest, by the summer of 2021.

"Considering the current situation, in regards to the Tokyo Games, as the host nation, in order to ensure that athletes from all over the world are able to compete in their best condition, and also in order to ensure the utmost safety for the spectators, I have asked him to consider postponing the games by about a year,” Abe added.

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The prime minister said Japan will fulfill its responsibility as the host nation "to prove that humanity has beaten the novel coronavirus."

The virus has forced millions of people around the world into lockdowns to help curb its spread and claimed more than 17,000 lives.

The Olympics is the biggest event yet to be affected by the growing global pandemic. The games were set to run July 24 to Aug. 9, and the Paralympics Aug. 25 to Sept. 6.

"The leaders agreed that the Olympic Games in Tokyo could stand as a beacon of hope to the world during these troubled times and that the Olympic flame could become the light at the end of the tunnel in which the world finds itself at present," the IOC said in a joint statement with the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee.

NBCUniversal, which is the parent company of NBC News, paid $4.4 billion for U.S. media rights to the four Olympics from 2014 to 2020.

This is the first major disruption to the Olympics since World War II, when the 1944 Summer Olympics, were canceled. The 1940 Summer Olympics, which were also to be held in Tokyo, were also canceled.

The IOC has dealt with potential health threats in the recent past, but none so serious that they affected the scheduled timeline.

There were concerns about the bird flu ahead of the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics, Zika during the 2016 Rio Olympics and swine flu before the 2010 Vancouver Olympics.

But despite growing concerns about the coronavirus epidemic in recent weeks, Japanese officials insisted the games will go ahead as planned. Abe acknowledged for the first time on Monday that the Olympics could be delayed due to the coronavirus as countries began threatening to keep their athletes at home.

The Olympic flame arrived in Japan on March 20 for a journey that would have led to the opening ceremony.

But following Abe's announcement, the torch relay, which was supposed to start on Thursday, was canceled, Yoshiro Mori, the organizing committee president, said. However, the Olympic flame will stay in Japan, the IOC has confirmed.

The IOC's move follows the suspension of many major sporting events and seasons around the world.

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Regions hit hard by the outbreak in Asia and Europe have canceled sporting events, including the Hong Kong Marathon and Italy's Serie A soccer matches.

In mid-March, the NBA suspended its season after a player on the Utah Jazz preliminarily tested positive for COVID-19, the disease caused by the new coronavirus.

That decision by the NBA was quickly followed by similar announcements from other pro leagues. Within hours, the NHL, Major League Soccer and MLB announced they would be pausing or postponing their seasons.

By the end of that week, the NCAA made the decision to cancel its men's and women's college basketball tournaments, known as March Madness. The cancellation extended to all remaining winter and spring NCAA championships.

Since then several other events have been postponed, including the French Open, the Invictus Games and the London Marathon.