Tokyo -- The 2020 Tokyo Olympics have been postponed to no later than the summer of 2021 because of the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the globe, the International Olympic Committee announced Tuesday.
The Games were scheduled for July 24-August 9, but after telephone discussions between IOC president Thomas Bach and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, a historic joint decision was taken to delay the Olympics -- the first time that has been done in peacetime.
Abe said Bach was in "100 percent agreement" when Japan asked the IOC to push back the Games.
In a joint statement, the pair said that based on current World Health Organization information, the Tokyo Games "must be rescheduled to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021, to safeguard the health of the athletes, everybody involved in the Olympic Games and the international community".
"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.
"Therefore, it was agreed that the Olympic flame will stay in Japan. It was also agreed that the Games will keep the name Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020," the statement concluded.
The Olympics, which has experienced boycotts, terrorist attacks and protests, but has been held every four years since 1948, is the highest-profile event affected by the virus that has killed thousands and closed sports competitions worldwide.
Bach said the decision to postpone was "about protecting human life".
Squeezing in the 16-day Games into what will already be a hugely crowded 2021 calendar is another major headache, with arguably the two biggest sports, swimming and athletics, due to hold their world championships that summer.
However, World Athletics has already said it was prepared to shift its world championships, scheduled for August 6-15 next year in Eugene, Oregon, to accommodate a rescheduled Games.
"World Athletics welcomes the decision of the IOC and the Japanese Government to postpone the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games to 2021," track and field's global governing body said.
"It is what athletes want and we believe this decision will give all athletes, technical officials and volunteers some respite and certainty in these unprecedented and uncertain times."
British sprinter Dina Asher-Smith, the world 200m champion, posted on Instagram: "#Tokyo2021, Same fire, new dates. Stay at home and stay safe everyone xxx."
The international federation of the number two Olympic sport, swimming, added that it would also work with local organisers "in order to determine flexibility" for their scheduled July 16-August 1, 2021 world championships in the Japanese city of Fukuoka.
World football's governing body FIFA said it "firmly believes that the health and well-being of all individuals involved in sporting activities should always be the highest priority, and as such we welcome today's IOC decision".
Devastating for Tokyo
The decision to postpone will be a devastating blow for the city of Tokyo, which had won widespread praise for its organisation, with venues finished well ahead of time and tickets massively oversubscribed.
British Olympic Association chairman Hugh Robertson said it was "heartbreaking news for our many friends in Japan who have done superbly well to prepare for what I know will be an outstanding Games".
"However, the IOC had no option under the present circumstances but to reach the decision they did."
The IOC came under increasing pressure in recent days to postpone the Games, with 1.7 billion people across the planet in lockdown to prevent the further spread of COVID-19.
Training has become impossible for many athletes and exposes them to the risk of contracting or spreading the disease. Competitions and qualifying events have been scrapped, while international travel is severely limited.
On Sunday, the IOC had initially given itself a deadline of four weeks to come up with a proposal to postpone the Games, a Herculean task that touches on every aspect of Tokyo 2020 planning from venues to security to ticketing.
But after Canada and Australia withdrew their teams and the powerful US Olympic Committee and World Athletics also joined the chorus calling for a postponement, the writing was on the wall.
Tokyo was spending some $12.6 billion to host the Games, according to its latest budget, and experts believe a postponement could cost it some $6 billion in the short-term before recouping it when they eventually go ahead.