TOKYO — After months of internal discussions and mounting pressure from nations and athletes across the world, the International Olympic Committee will postpone the Tokyo Games that had been scheduled to begin in late July, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan said Tuesday.
The Games, the world’s largest sporting event, will instead take place in the summer of 2021, a change that will likely wreak havoc with sports schedules but should bring great relief to the athletes, organizers and health officials who pressed for a delay and complained that the I.O.C. was not moving quickly enough to adjust to the coronavirus pandemic.
The decision became inevitable after the national Olympic committee in Canada announced on Sunday that it was withdrawing from the Games, and Australia’s committee told its athletes that it was not possible to train for this summer under the widespread restrictions in place to control the virus. The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, after initially declining to take a stand, joined the fray Monday night, urging the I.O.C. to postpone.
In announcing the decision, Abe said that he asked Thomas Bach, the president of the I.O.C., for a one-year delay and that Bach “agreed 100 percent.”
The Olympics have avoided postponements several times previously, even following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, and another attack during the 1972 Munich Olympics.
This delay came after numerous other postponements or cancellations in Japan and around the world, and after many governments urged people to limit their physical interactions.
In a news conference, Yoshiro Mori, the chairman of the Tokyo organizing committee, said the dates and details of the 2021 event had not been determined.
“I don’t know what is going to happen,” he said. “Maybe we will reduce the scale. We are going to discuss that going forward.”
The decision quickly gained the support of national Olympic committees from around the world. In a statement, Andy Anson, the chief executive of the British Olympic Association, said a postponement was the only decision his organization could support. “It would have been unthinkable for us to continue to prepare for an Olympic Games at a time the nation and the world no less is enduring great hardship,” Anson said.
Sarah Hirshland, the chief executive of the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee, which did not support a postponement until Monday night, said a letter to Team U.S.A. athletes that “taking a step back from competition to care for our communities and each other is the right thing to do. Your moment will wait until we can gather again safely.”
In a conference call in March between the World Health Organization and the medical officers for the international sports federations that oversee Olympic events, participants discussed other options, including the possibility of holding the Games without spectators. Ultimately, organizers decided that delaying would allow more time to bring the virus under control.
The Olympic torch relay through Japan, which was scheduled to start Thursday, was also postponed. The flame will stay in Fukushima, site of the nuclear meltdown triggered by an earthquake and tsunami nine years ago.
At a time when Japan’s economy is already stumbling, the delay of the Olympics could deal a serious blow. In a report early this month, SMBC Nikko Securities Inc. projected that a cancellation of the Games would erase 1.4 percent of Japan’s economic output.
One of the trickiest aspects of moving the Games is handling the broadcast rights that drive significant revenue for the International Olympic Committee. Nearly three-quarters of I.O.C. revenue comes from broadcast rights, and about half of those fees are paid by the American broadcaster NBC. Experts said that broadcast and other Olympic partners may seek a reduction in their fees.
The complications will ripple beyond the Games themselves. The international governing bodies for track and field and swimming planned to hold world championships and will have to work with their athletes and host cities to push those events back, along with major events in other sports.
Keeping the Olympics during a similar slot in the summer also means most of the top professional athletes, including golfers and tennis, basketball and soccer players, may still be able to participate, working around calendars in their own sports.
Until now, the Olympics had not been canceled or postponed since World War II. Tokyo was supposed to host the Summer Games in 1940 but had to bow out after it went to war with China. The Games were then awarded to Helsinki, but were canceled after the outbreak of the war in Europe. Helsinki ultimately hosted the 1952 Summer Games, and Tokyo held them in 1964.
The Summer Olympics attract more than 10,000 athletes from more than 200 countries, and the I.O.C. prides itself on being a peace movement that brings the world together every two years at the Winter and Summer Games.
With that in mind, as well as the billions of dollars that had been invested in the Games, Bach postponed his decision for months, waiting to see if the threat of the pandemic would dissipate. Ultimately, the prospect of making the situation worse proved too great a risk for an organization that relies largely on the good will of people and governments around the world for its survival.
The coronavirus initially broke out in China in December but quickly spread across Asia. While it appears to have stabilized somewhat in Japan, many health experts remain concerned that bringing together people from disparate parts of the globe — especially athletes who live closely in a village — might ignite an additional outbreak.