Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games organizers announced that preparations for the global tournament are “continuing as planned”, stressing that they “never discussed” cancelling the games despite mounting fears over the coronavirus crisis. A spokesperson for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) also stated that “we made a decision and the decision is that the games will go ahead”. In a press statement, the IOC reiterated that the organization was “fully committed” to the successful organization of the games and that there was “no need for any drastic decisions,” urging all athletes to continue their preparations.
These statements were all made in March 2020, just as the first wave of the pandemic began to hit Japan. Less than a month later the IOC and local organizers of the Tokyo games conceded that the Olympics would have to be postponed until July 2021. Despite this history of backpedalling, many people are taking the more recent display of confidence about the games proceeding as planned at face value, arguing that the plan is a “tempting disaster” – even though we went through largely the same routine less than twelve months ago.
There are many reasons why the organizers need to publicly state their commitment to the games – regardless of whatever discussions are actually going on behind the scenes. The Japanese government cannot unilaterally postpone or cancel the Olympics without breaching its contracts with the IOC and other sponsors, and there are certainly fraught negotiations going on between those parties as they sort out what the eventual decision will look like. A major difference between now and March 2020 is that the delayed tournament is one year closer to bumping up against the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics and the next Summer Olympics in 2024. Meanwhile, athletes who have trained for years are seeing their chances of winning a medal slipping away, all of which likely narrow the options for organizers.
One big challenge for the games might be living up to the drama that the lead up has provided. Mori Yoshiro’s sexist comments were humiliating, and his presence as the head of the organizing committee for the games spoke to the old boys network that defines so much of LDP governance – while the drawing out of the drama leading up to his resignation made clear Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide’s weakness relative to Mori and his sway within the party. That Mori’s successor (Hashimoto Seiko) was named relatively quickly speaks to the urgency with which the Japanese government wanted to turn the page on this whole affair and continue with preparations.
Simply canceling the games is a prohibitively expensive option, with much of the cost of that eventuality set to fall on the Japanese public. Kansai University’s Miyamoto Katsuhiro estimated in 2020 that postponing the games for a year would cost 640 billion yen ($6.5 billion), while canceling the games entirely would cost about 4.5 trillion yen ($45 billion) due to lost revenue from international visitors and operating expenses. Much of the cost of the Olympics has already been spent, so as far as finances are concerned, the goal for the IOC and Japan is to recoup as much of their investment as possible – albeit with the knowledge they’ll probably lose at least some of the $25 billion invested so far. It’s worth noting that pandemics are almost never included on insurance plans (unlike typhoons, which is why the organizers of the 2019 Rugby World Cup could reimburse fans whose games were canceled by Typhoon Hagibis).
The goal for the IOC and Japan is to recoup as much of their investment as possible – albeit with the knowledge they’ll probably lose some of the $25 billion invested so far.
Even if organizers do ultimately commit to hosting the opening ceremony on July 23, the idea that this will inevitably unfold into disaster seems premature at best. The biggest logistical hurdle will be containing potential coronavirus clusters among overseas athletes and visitors, which will require large scale PCR testing, quarantines, and social distancing. Implementing these countermeasures on the millions of international spectators that were originally expected to visit Tokyo would have been a logistical nightmare, especially given the likely need to prioritize athletes. As a result, only a limited number of visitors – perhaps only residents of Japan – might be able to attend the events. IOC Chief Thomas Bach, along with former Olympics president Mori, have already floated the possibility of hosting the tournament without spectators.
Such a move might be dramatic, and maybe even contrary to the cosmopolitan spirit of the Olympics, but it would be consistent with the myriad of other major sporting events that have been held around the world amid the coronavirus pandemic. It may also, however, be financially problematic for Japanese organizers. The IOC retains more than half of the television revenue, which is easily the largest source of revenue from the games, so they have far less to lose from a Summer Olympics without fans than the host city, which relies on the spending of Olympic attendees to cover its investments in the event. It’s not inconceivable that an Olympics without spectators would require the IOC to renegotiate finances to allow Tokyo a larger share of broadcast revenue to make up for the lack of spectators.
The IOC retains more than half of the television revenue which is the largest source of revenue from the games, so they have far less to lose from a Summer Olympics without fans than the host city
Rearranging the Olympics in this way may represent the “least-worst” alternative. Many of the world’s major sports leagues have pulled off events with varying degrees of success by enforcing sports “bubbles,” testing protocols, or through restricting team movements. Japan’s top rugby league has had to delay the start of the season for a couple of weeks due to Covid-19 related problems, but Nippon Professional Baseball and J-League soccer both went forward with limited fans and relative success. The hope is that Olympic organizers are following those developments and drawing lessons; the experiences of other sporting events suggest that a limited Olympics is at least feasible. While a domestic vaccination program will open up further possibilities for local organizers, it may even be possible to proceed without a compulsory vaccination plan for athletes or spectators, given that vaccinations have not been required for sporting competitions held over the past year.
When Tokyo hosted the games in 1964 it was seen as a marker of the country’s postwar recovery. The 2020 games were supposed to represent that Japan had turned the corner on its thirty-odd years of stagnation, while also serving as a nod to Japan’s nostalgia for its 1980’s economic boom period. That still holds true, but now Olympic organizers see the Tokyo Olympic Games as a celebration of recovery from the global coronavirus pandemic. Whether this will be possible depends on how quickly Japan can get its domestic outbreak under control along with demonstrating an ability to thoughtfully and meticulously manage the influx of visitors.
Paul Nadeau is a project researcher at the University of Tokyo's Institute for Future Initiatives, an adjunct professor at Temple University's Japan campus, and an adjunct fellow with the Scholl Chair in International Business at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS). He was previously a private secretary with the Japanese Diet and as a member of the foreign affairs and trade staff of Senator Olympia Snowe. He holds a B.A. from the George Washington University, an M.A. in law and diplomacy from the Fletcher School at Tufts University, and a PhD from the University of Tokyo's Graduate School of Public Policy. He should be general manager of the Montreal Canadiens.