Less than three months after Beijing hosted the Winter Olympics and Paralympics, the Olympic Council of Asia said Friday that this year's Asian Games in China are being postponed because of concerns about the spreading omicron variant of COVID-19 in the country.
The OCA said it had not picked new dates but said they would be announced “in the near future” after talks with local organizers and the Chinese Olympic Committee.
The OCA statement said local organizers were “very well prepared to deliver the games on time despite the global challenges. However, the decision was taken by all the stakeholders after carefully considering the pandemic situation and the size of the games.”
The postponement reflects a growing concern among the Chinese leadership about rapidly spreading outbreaks from Shanghai to Beijing in an important political year. The ruling Communist Party is holding a major meeting this fall and doesn’t want any signs of instability, pandemic-related or not.
China is staying with a “zero-COVID” strategy of lockdowns and other restrictions despite the economic costs and the fact that many other countries around the world are loosening up and trying to live with the virus.
China's state-run television also reported the Asian Games postponement in a brief statement, but did not specify anything about rescheduling.
The Asian Games were to take place from Sept. 10-25 in the eastern city of Hangzhou and would involve more than 11,000 athletes — more than the typical Summer Olympics. The last edition was in 2018 in Jakarta, Indonesia.
The World University Games, another major multi-sport event, have also been postponed, organizers said Friday. They were scheduled for last year but were postponed until 2022. They were to take place this year from June 26-July 7 in the western city of Chengdu. About 6,000 athletes were believed to be involved.
The Switzerland-based International University Sports Federation, which runs the games, said they would be held in 2023 but gave no date or details.
“Continued uncertainty over conditions has made rescheduling the sensible choice,” FISU president Leonz Eder said in a statement.
Both events were expected to take place using the “closed-loop” system that was in place for the Beijing Olympics and Paralympics. It kept athletes and media isolated from the general population of Beijing and required daily tests and frequent temperature checks for everyone involved.
The Winter Olympics were a relatively small event with only 2,900 athletes. The Winter Paralympics had about 700.
The spread of the omicron variant in Shanghai and Beijing seems to have made holding both events impossible, even though just a few weeks ago organizers said both events would go ahead. Much of Shanghai — a finance, manufacturing and shipping hub — has been locked down, disrupting people’s lives and dealing a blow to the economy.
The OCA also announced that the Asian Youth Games, which were scheduled for Dec. 20-28 in Shantou, China, would be canceled. The youth games, which had already been postponed once, will next be held in 2025 in Tashkent, Uzbekistan.
Two international track meets scheduled to be held in China this year were also called off.
The Diamond League meets in Shanghai and Shenzhen were taken off the calendar “due to travel restrictions and strict quarantine requirements currently in place for entry into China,” organizers said in a statement.
Organizers said a substitute event will be held in Chorzow, Poland, on Aug. 6.
The strict “zero-COVID” policy has been closely identified with President Xi Jinping, the head of the ruling Communist Party, and was strongly reaffirmed at a meeting of the party’s all-powerful Politburo Standing Committee on Thursday.
“Relaxation will undoubtedly lead to massive numbers of infections, critical cases and deaths, seriously impacting economic and social development and people’s lives and health,” the the official Xinhua News Agency said in its summary of the meeting’s conclusions.
The meeting “stressed the importance of unswervingly adhering to the dynamic zero-COVID policy and resolutely fighting any attempts to distort, question or dismiss China’s anti-COVID policy."
China on Friday reported a total of 4,628 new COVID-19 cases, the vast majority of them asymptomatic and detected in Shanghai, China’s largest city which lies about 177 kilometers (110 miles) east of Hangzhou.