Despite record COVID-19 infections in Japan and elsewhere in the world, the country is plowing ahead with plans to hold the rescheduled 2020 Tokyo Olympics next summer. In mid-November, before Japan’s resurgent coronavirus outbreak, International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach visited Tokyo to inspect facilities, saying the Games “would be the light at the end of this dark tunnel.”
The cost of cancellation is astronomical: Japan has spent more than $12 billion preparing for the Games, though some estimates put the true cost at around $26 billion when infrastructure investment, and an extra billion or so for the year’s delay, are both factored in.
But the risks are also clear: welcoming 15,000 athletes from over 200 different territories, and perhaps hundreds of thousands of spectators, has the potential to create a catastrophic super-spreader event. Local attitudes have also turned frosty. An October survey by the Kyodo News wire service revealed that only 38% of Japanese support hosting the Games next summer, while 31% favor another postponement, with nearly a quarter wanting them canceled altogether.
In an exclusive interview with TIME, Bach explains why he’s confident the Games will happen and be a success. (The following has been edited for length and clarity.)
What was your impression of the Olympics facilities and preparations during your visit to Tokyo last month?
Tokyo is the best-ever prepared Olympic city. And if you look at the venues, they’re highly impressive and inspiring. I visited the Olympic Village because, for an athlete, this is the place where the Olympic spirit is, where you have all the athletes together. It’s an iconic village with a view of the rainbow bridge looking towards the towers of the city center. It’s very well planned and is already adapted to [coronavirus] requirements because there is enough space for social distancing. The Japanese have been thinking about every detail. The ceiling is seven meters high allowing for a good air circulation and so on.
So athletes would be allowed to mingle and wouldn’t be confined to bubbles and these types of measures?
This is work in progress. An interim report has been published based on the tools we have available now concerning [coronavirus] countermeasures. We will be able to add to these tools by the time of the Games—the latest developments in rapid testing and the tool of vaccination.
Right now, some measures in the interim report [are] about wearing masks, guidelines for the duration of stay in the Olympic Village, not to have the village at full capacity all the time to allow for better social distancing, a test center in the village, and many other things.
Japan has really been planning very diligently and the IOC, on our side, will work very closely with the National Olympic Committees, and with athletes and officials, so we have our package of countermeasures from both partners.
You sound very confident. If you had to give a percentage possibility that the Olympics will go ahead in the summer what would you say?
This is an unfair question because what is 100% in our world? But we are very, very confident and at this moment we have no reason to believe that the Games could not take place.
This is a based on facts and figures. We can see, on the one end, the strong commitment of the Japanese government and of the prime minister [Yoshihide Suga] to make the Games happen—and this is absolutely in line with our own commitment.
When you look at the venues, the infrastructure, the work of the organizing committee—which is already entering the operational phase right now—[and] the fact that in Japan big sports events have already been successfully organized even under these restrictions, all these together does not give us any reason for not believing that we would have the opening ceremony on July 23 and that we will have a very meaningful and very successful Olympic Games.
But at the moment there are rising rates of coronavirus infections across the world. Do you fear that many athletes may choose to stay away—like some did because of Zika in Rio 2016? And are you worried that many athletes cannot train properly because of lockdown measures?
No, and for Rio I think it was one golfer who stayed away. We can see from athletes that they’re eager to compete, they are taking all precautionary measures and are already now in preparation. So they are taking part in those events which can take place right now, and we will support them and we are supporting them in this. I do not think that the Games will be greatly affected by a big number of athletes staying away. On the contrary, the athletes want to be in the Games.
Still, there are many factors to consider, including the health of the Japanese public, who might be put in jeopardy by all these people arriving from across the world. The U.S. is also in a very bad situation regarding the coronavirus at the moment. If cases continue on the current trajectory, could you foresee American athletes and spectators being asked to stay away?
No, there are measures that go with testing, which are already planned in the interim report. And officials would be regularly tested during the Olympic Games. And the situation in the U.S. right now [might not be the] situation in eight months from now.
Up until the 1990s, the summer and winter Olympics were both held in the same year. Given the current situation, isn’t the ideal solution to delay Tokyo until 2022 and have both Games in the same year, when stadiums could be full, the athletes would be properly prepared and public health could be safeguarded?
No, the preparation of the athletes has started already and for some of them it would be too long to be prepared. You also cannot maintain the infrastructure of the Games for such a long period. All this infrastructure has a legacy, as the Olympic village will be turned into apartments for the population of Tokyo, for instance.
The broadcasting center will be needed for an exhibition center and other [uses]. You cannot employ the thousands of people working in the organizing committee forever. You cannot have the National Olympic Committees and the IOC having to support athletes even longer. In this respect, the one year postponement was the right [choice], otherwise we would have to take cancellation into consideration, and this is what nobody wanted or wants.
Japan’s Olympic Minister Seiko Hashimoto recently said Tokyo 2020 would be held next year “at any cost.” Is there a risk that organizers are so determined to recoup financial losses that they are ignoring public health concerns?
No, this is not the choice. We in the IOC set the first priority [as being] a safe organization for all participants. The minister did not say at any cost of safety or whatever. She has to be interpreted—and I can tell you this because we are in close contact—[as expressing] confidence that the Games will take place at this moment. And we have no reason to believe that they could not take place.
This has has been a year where racial and social justice has hit the headlines, especially with Black Lives Matter. A lot of sporting franchises from the NBA to Premier League Soccer have embraced that movement. World Athletics president Sebastian Coe recently voiced support for allowing peaceful protest at the Olympics. Is it now time to revise Article 50 of the Olympic Charter that bans any form of protest during the Games?
First of all, we are fully supportive of freedom of speech and this is highlighted in the athletes’ rights and responsibilities declaration, which has been devised by our Athletes’ Commission with the input of more than 4,000 athletes worldwide. Athletes from a number of National Olympic Committees have already made it very clear that they want the field of play and the Olympic ceremonies protected from any kind of political demonstrations. Because otherwise you could have … one athlete demonstrating against an athlete from another country or its politics.
We think that the field of play and the ceremonies are not the place for this. Athletes can express themselves in press conferences, in social media, in team meetings, in all the different events in the mixed zones. At the same time, we want to be creative and so we are expecting recommendations from the Athletes’ Commission for how athletes … can express their support for Olympic values.
The Olympics in the past has been used as a political force for good. There was the exclusion of apartheid South Africa and allowing the Korean peninsula to march and compete under a united flag at the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang. Instead of holding consultations, doesn’t the IOC have an opportunity to be a thought-leader?
We could only achieve the joint march of the [Korean] team in PyeongChang because we are politically neutral. If we had taken a political side there, no way could we get North Korea on board. And only by supporting the North Korean athletes in the lead up to the Games could we get them on board. Our mission is to bring people together and to emphasize what humanity is sharing, not what is dividing humanity. If the Athletes’ Commission has good ideas [to enable us to] emphasize this role—this inclusivity, this unity, this non-discrimination, this equality—we will be very creative [about including them].
There are growing calls from the U.S., U.K., and now even the E.U. to boycott the Beijing Winter Games over China’s persecution of Uighur Muslims. Do you feel that the Olympics should consider serious action against China?
No, on the contrary. First of all, [the] anti-apartheid [movement] was an action by the entire society of the world. It was not sport alone. You had an economic boycott, cultural boycott with regard to apartheid. And this made it work.
If you speak about the Games in general or in Beijing, of course there are different opinions and some politicians are arguing for this. On the other hand, the most recent resolution of the G20 welcomed the upcoming Olympic Games in Tokyo and in Beijing. If you look at the most recent resolution adopted by consensus by all the U.N. member states, [it] recognized the contribution of the Olympic Games to peace and emphasized [its] unifying power. So our role in this world is first of all about sport and our social role is to unify and not to divide people.
When it comes to human rights, the responsibility we have, and [which] we take very seriously, is within the framework of the Olympic Games. There is a host who has to respect the Olympic Charter and the host city contract, [which is where] human rights find their expression. This is our remit and this we take seriously. But we are not a world government and cannot achieve what generations of politicians and U.N. general assemblies have not achieved. Our role is a different one.
This has been a tumultuous year for everyone. How have yourself and your team at the IOC dealt with the mental toll?
For myself, what I learned during this crisis is what a weekend means. I didn’t really have weekends for many, many years, because events and the meetings that usually taking place on weekends. So I had the opportunity to finally do some sport, so I lost a good amount of kilos and I’m more fit than at the beginning of the coronavirus crisis. Many colleagues around me had the same experience.
So you can see how much sport is contributing to physical and mental health, and how it helps you to cope with stress and to keep you physically fit. So I’m ready for an extraordinary Olympic year ’21.
It was just announced that break-dancing, or breaking, has been added to the roster of sports for 2024. Are you a personal fan of breaking? Have you ever break-danced yourself?
Unfortunately, this is more about passion than talent [for me], but I followed breaking in particular during our Youth Olympic Games in Buenos Aires in 2018. That was a really exciting experience and having the opportunity to be with those young guys there taught me a lot. So I am really looking forward to breaking in ’24, but I will not be participating in the qualification events.
—With reporting by Sean Gregory/New York