David Owen

It appeared to have been so carefully choreographed.

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach would ride into the birthplace of the modern Games on the back of a charming and hugely money-spinning Tokyo 2020 event and be re-elected triumphantly, perhaps even by acclamation, to a second term, at a Session in June 2021, followed immediately by a hugely symbolic visit to Ancient Olympia.

Now this, like so much else in Olympicland, has been plunged into uncertainty by the unprecedented postponement of the multi-billion-dollar mega-event on which the whole kingdom depends.

Make no mistake, navigating the next up to 18 months of re-planning, energy-sapping tugs of war and, inevitably, occasional confrontation will be by far the toughest task the German has faced in his six-and-a-half years at the helm.

And with the bidding reforms, the Russian doping crisis and now a third consecutive white-knuckle Olympic countdown, no-one can say he has had it easy.

Fortunately, in spite of a decidedly mixed record, one area in which he has excelled is in establishing and maintaining an iron grip on the IOC itself.

Since the untimely demise of Partick Baumann, there has been no sniff of a potential successor in the wings; and it is inconceivable that Baumann, a younger man, would have launched a challenge before Bach's maximum 12-year stint in the hot-seat had elapsed.

Thomas Bach faces his most challenging period as IOC President ©Getty Images
Thomas Bach faces his most challenging period as IOC President ©Getty Images

But Bach still needs to make a success of running this new pandemic-induced Tokyo gauntlet if he is to remain secure in his post.

Though skilled at utilising his extensive powers of patronage and manipulating negotiations to his and the IOC's benefit, he has too often displayed a tin ear rather than statesmanship, stubbornness rather than flexibility and a penchant for sloganising rather than genuine transparency. 

It was revealing how adroitly Seb Coe, Bach's old pal from Baden-Baden days, seized the initiative last weekend when it became clear – to almost everyone – that rapid action over Tokyo was needed.

The Englishman, who oversaw what remains, eight years on, the last Olympics to be an unqualified success, is not available as a potential successor next year, having somehow still failed to gain access to the IOC's inner sanctum.

There is, moreover, no indication that I am aware of that Coe feels another IOC member might be better-suited to the President's fiendishly difficult role than Bach.

But the IOC is full of ambitious people; should the feeling grow that Bach is making a hash of this latest conundrum, the backing of influential "outsiders" could yet see a challenger emerge.  

Hindsight is a wonderful thing, especially for journalists, and changing plans is never easy in such a complex organism as the Olympic Movement, but it is hard to comprehend today why the kindling of the Olympic Flame in Olympia earlier this month was allowed to proceed.

With the world in thrall to coronavirus, the event was largely ignored quite apart from seeming monumentally inappropriate to many of us.

Had the IOC got its timing right on this – not easy, but not impossible for what can be a relatively small-scale event by Olympic standards – almost everyone in the world would have been minded to watch and the Flame could have symbolised a new dawn.

Shinzō Abe, like Thomas Bach, faces the prospect of election next year ©Getty Images
Shinzō Abe, like Thomas Bach, faces the prospect of election next year ©Getty Images

It might yet achieve some of this impact in Japan, now that the decision has finally been taken to call a halt to the Relay, as originally conceived.

The local authorities will be anxious for now that the Flame's presence on Japanese soil for a protracted period should not draw crowds.

Nonetheless, I wonder if there is a case for leaving it to burn for a while in disaster-hit Fukushima, demonstrating to inhabitants that, even in these dark days, the world has not forgotten.

There remains the matter of yesterday's better-late-than-never joint statement and the less than ringing undertaking that the Games must be rescheduled to "a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021".

If ever a phrase had the ring of being written by committee, this would be it.

Having put out feelers, I have formed the view that, while the likely preference of the IOC's media paymasters probably makes a date 10-to-12 months on from the original schedule the frontrunner, a spring Games is at this stage very much a live possibility.

The IOC President's media teleconference today did nothing to dispel this impression.

As I understand it, like Bach, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe faces the prospect of an election next year.

While my comprehension of politics in the Land of the Rising Sun is limited, to say the least, I think the concept of a feel-good election is understood by democrats all over the world, particularly incumbents.

Abe's only chance of this over the next two years would appear to be in the wake of a successful Tokyo 2020.

My working assumption, therefore, is that he will want to leave enough time after the Olympics and Paralympics for a poll, if at all possible.

The Japanese spring of 2021 could host the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games ©Getty Images
The Japanese spring of 2021 could host the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games ©Getty Images

I am also advised, separately, that 2021 is an election year for the Tokyo Metropolitan Government; it would seem unfeasible to stage such a plebiscite while the athletes of the world are descending in their thousands on your city.

There is too the matter of the 2021 World Masters Games, scheduled currently for the second half of May in Kansai.

Much equipment from the Olympics and Paralympics is earmarked for use in these Games, or so I am told.

The obvious solution might seem to be to bump them back a year, like so much else.

But will Abe, in – I repeat – pre-election mode want to run the risk of postponing not one but two major events?

We will have to wait and see.

Perhaps more surprisingly, I am hearing on excellent authority that some International Federations (IFs), and not the least significant, may well prefer a spring Olympics to one in the dog days of another sweltering Tokyo summer.

Each IF will no doubt have its own scheduling issues to work through for what is a popular world championship year.

But if heavyweight sports join the Japanese political establishment in pushing for a spring date, the pressure may become tough for other interests to resist - though too early a time-frame might risk being compromised should a feared second wave of COVID-19 infections materialise.

Should a date as early as March be selected, incidentally, I am told that the Government should be able to account for the Games in the same fiscal year as was always intended.

Whether this consideration will have much bearing on the final decision now, I am not so sure.

The postponement of Tokyo 2020 due to coronavirus will have huge ramifications for both sport and politics ©Getty Images
The postponement of Tokyo 2020 due to coronavirus will have huge ramifications for both sport and politics ©Getty Images

A spring Olympics might even help Bach keep his date in Olympia and secure re-election – provided, that is, the Games are judged a success.

I do not want to predict this is what is going to happen: as I say the pushback against any spring slot is likely to be strong.

But if you start to hear inklings that a March-April-May schedule is under strong consideration, well, you have been warned.