Philip Barker

The revised dates for Tokyo 2020 in 2021 were revealed this week. The Games will take place 364 days later than was originally planned. 

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach said: "Humankind currently finds itself in a dark tunnel. These Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 can be a light at the end of this tunnel."

The IOC Athletes' Commission hailed these new dates as "the safest option", although some organisations, including World Triathlon, have indicated that they would have preferred the Games to be held earlier in the year.

The announcement came remarkably quickly. Even in more normal times, the scheduling of an event as big as the Olympics is a complex matter. Many of the other sporting events which were scheduled for 2021 have been pushed back to 2022 and this too has been done with great speed.

A glance back to the time when Tokyo was previously an Olympic host reveals that extent of the problem. The records show that the negotiations over the exact timing of the Games took much longer to conclude. This was partly because there was still uncertainty over the final composition of the sporting programme until relatively late by today’s standards.

In 1959, the IOC members had emphatically chosen Tokyo as host city at its Session in Munich.

Tokyo's delegation had told the IOC how "Asia is ready to have the Olympic Flame burn brightly and proudly on Asian soil for the first time in the long and distinguished history of the Games."

Tokyo beat Detroit, Vienna and Brussels by a margin which came as a surprise even to its most enthusiastic supporters.

"We were hoping to win, but not by that margin. We were not certain of victory because you can never consider yourself elected before the votes are counted", said Tsuneyoshi Takeda, soon to be appointed as vice-president of the Organising Committee.

New Tokyo 2020 dates - in 2021 - were confirmed this week ©Getty Images
New Tokyo 2020 dates - in 2021 - were confirmed this week ©Getty Images

Preparations were still at a relatively early stage when they initially proposed early summer, midsummer and autumn dates as options.

By the time IOC members gathered at Rome’s Hotel Excelsior in August 1960 for the Session prior to the Rome Olympics, the Tokyo delegation had tabled a proposal in which the Games were to begin on May 23 in 1964.

There were immediately objections. General Vladimir Stoychev of Bulgaria and Sweden’s Bo Ekelund both described the dates as ‘"unsuitable".

Tokyo’s own records noted opposition from Europe and the United States on the grounds that the season was "so early it might prove detrimental to student participants’ academic work."

The official report also notes tellingly "the reason advanced for the proposal was that though in midsummer there was likely to be a comparatively long period of fine weather, both temperature and humidity are extremely high, conditions which are not ideal for participants."

Many also warned against an alternative, which provided for the 1964 Games to be staged in October. Although this was considered the "best sporting season in Japan" there was "a risk of typhoons." As it turned out, the journey of the Olympic Flame to Japan was ultimately delayed by just such an eventuality.

The decision on dates was deferred until the following IOC Session, to be held in June 1961 at the Senate House in Athens.

There, Organising Committee official Kasushishigi Hirasawa proposed that dates in October be adopted. This was agreed and the opening day was announced as either the October 9 or 10.

The two dates were given as a result of an interesting suggestion from the French member Armand Massard, who "requested that the Opening Ceremony be followed by a day of rest. It had been proved that a considerable number of athletes refrain from attending the opening ceremony for fear of being too tired." The IOC member Dr Ryōtarō Azuma, who was also Governor of Tokyo, gave his backing, and the IOC membership passed the motion.

Tokyo 1964 went ahead in October ©Getty Images
Tokyo 1964 went ahead in October ©Getty Images

When the IOC met in Moscow in 1962, the idea of a "rest" day was shelved "by a large majority", although the October dates for the Games were confirmed.

That year the satellite Telstar blasted into space. For the first time it was possible to beam television pictures from one side of the world to the other. It was a development which transformed not just the Olympic world but the whole nature of televised sport.

The Games opened on October 10 1964, by which time the satellite Syncom III was in position 23,000 miles over the Pacific Ocean.

"If the communications satellite Syncom III behaves as expected viewers will have up to the minute same day coverage", said television billings. Television companies claimed "technical arrangements more complicated than any attempted before."

They also promised tapes "sent by Jet over the North Pole" to arrive in Hamburg for transmission over the Eurovision network and its Eastern Bloc equivalent Intervision.

Since then, only three Games have taken place outside the July-August axis. It is not hard to see why.

The advent of colour television had made sport a valuable commodity and the networks in the US became willing to spend huge sums on the Olympic Games, providing that they did not clash with their other prize properties. In the northern hemisphere autumn, these included the lucrative professional football from the National Football League.

The Mexico City 1968 Olympics had been scheduled for October, but it wasn’t until 1988 that another Games again began outside the months of July or August. To a certain extent, American television called the shots again.

The Sydney 2000 Opening Ceremony was held on September 15 - early spring in the southern hemisphere ©Getty Images
The Sydney 2000 Opening Ceremony was held on September 15 - early spring in the southern hemisphere ©Getty Images

After long negotiations with athletics supremo Primo Nebiolo, the finals of track and field were switched to the Korean morning so that they would hit primetime in the US.

In the early years of the Olympic Games, there had been no television and much less time-pressure because the sporting calendar was not nearly as crowded. In 1900, 1904 and 1908, the Games programme stretched over months not weeks.

In 1908, racquet player Evan Baillie Noel was crowned as the first Olympic champion in late April. The final gold medal decided that year was for men’s hockey. Competition concluded on the last day of October.

Before this week’s announcement there were some who advocated a springtime date for the 2021 Olympics. It had happened before. In the year 2000, the hugely successful Sydney Games took place in late September - spring in the southern hemisphere. A more famous precedent had come 125 years ago when Athens staged the first Olympics of the modern era in the Spring of 1896.

According to the ‘Julian calendar the Greeks were using at the time, it began on March 25. In other countries a different system was in use and the start date was listed as April 6. Although the Games are generally considered successful, the weather did prove unreliable.

In the stadium, "from time to time the wind whirled up clouds of dust to the great discomfort of spectators." There was a similar problem at the cycling but nothing so bad as at the rowing.

This had been scheduled to take place at Phaleron Bay but the official report related that ‘"the bad weather changed into a real storm, which made any attempt to race impossible. In the afternoon, the storm was still on the increase, some of the lighter embarkations were thrown on the shore by the violence of the waves, and the elements continued to rage with such fury that every idea of a boat race had to be given up.” It was the first example of an Olympic event being not postponed but actually cancelled.