Tokyo Olympics 2021: Will they really happen?

Tokyo Olympics 2021: Will they really happen?

The Tokyo Olympics is slated to open in six months’ time, even as Tokyo and other parts of Japan are under an emergency order because of surging coronavirus cases. While 80% of Japanese want them canceled or postponed, officials say the show must go on.

Eugene Hoshiko/AP

A woman wearing a mask to help curb the spread of COVID-19 walks past a 2020 Olympics banner in Tokyo, Jan. 19, 2021. Organizers will "leave it until absolutely the last minute" to cancel, in case the COVID-19 situation improves, one former Olympic organizer said.

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January 19, 2021

Tokyo

The Tokyo Olympics are to open in six months on July 23 and organizers have no public program planned to mark the milestone.

There is too much uncertainty for that right now.

Tokyo and other parts of Japan are under an emergency order because of surging coronavirus cases, with about 4,500 deaths attributed to COVID-19.

Instead of a countdown celebration, the focus is on the virus and speculation around the Olympics being canceled. Should they take place during a spreading pandemic – vaccine or no vaccine? Organizers say they will, with exact details yet to be revealed.

It’s been this way since the Olympics were postponed almost 10 months ago. And there remain more questions than answers.


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When will a final decision be announced about holding the Olympics?

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and local organizers are adamant they will happen. Mark the date – March 25. That’s when the torch relay begins from northern Japan, crisscrossing the country for four months with 10,000 runners headed to Tokyo. It’s hard to imagine the relay going ahead, but the Olympics being canceled. It was in late March last year when the Olympics were postponed.

Recent polls show 80% of people in Japan want the Olympics canceled or postponed. So why are Japan and the IOC pushing ahead?

A key is the billions of dollars already “sunk” into the event, and the income the games will generate for the IOC. The IOC gets almost three-quarters of its income from selling TV rights. Another 18% is from sponsors. Unlike other sports businesses like the NBA or English soccer, the IOC has only two major events – every four years – to rely on.

Only five Olympics have ever been canceled, all during wartime: the 1916, 1940, and 1944 Summer Olympics, and the Winter Games in 1940 and 1944. But that was before big money was involved.

Japan must also save face. It has spent at least $25 billion preparing for the Olympics. In addition, China will host the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing – Japan would hate to cede the stage to China.

Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide is framing the Olympics as “a proof of human victory against the coronavirus.”

Will these Olympics look different?

Almost certainly. First, athletes will be told to arrive later than usual, and leave early. The idea is to keep the Athletes Village sparsely populated. It’s hard to imagine much interaction between athletes, the public, and the media. Fewer athletes than usual are likely to appear in the opening ceremony. Japanese media are reporting only 6,000 Olympic athletes will take part. More than 11,000 athletes competed in the 2016 Games.

However, from the perspective of the television viewer, everything may look similar to previous Olympics. The venues are basically TV stages, and they look the same from one Olympics to the next. Fans are now accustomed to viewing sports events in empty stadiums.

One caveat. Ticket sales account for $800 million in income for local organizers. No fans means lost revenue. Those losses must be absorbed by Japanese government entities. Several Japanese government audits have estimated Olympic spending at $25 billion or more. All but $6.7 billion is public money. Local sponsors have also poured in $3.5 billion. Will they get much “bang for their buck?”

What’s behind the skeptical comments recently from several insiders – mainly senior IOC official Dick Pound and Japanese minister Kono Taro.

When Mr. Pound was asked about the Olympics taking place, he responded, “I can’t be certain because the ongoing elephant in the room would be the surges in the virus.” He also suggested athletes should be a high priority for a vaccine because they serve as “role models.” That contradicted IOC President Thomas Bach, who has said athletes should not be a priority.

Mr. Kono, a member of Mr. Suga’s cabinet, acknowledged in an interview that the Olympics are in doubt.

“I should say anything is possible,” Mr. Kono said.

Mr. Kono is the former defense minister and is now the minister for administrative and regulatory reform. On Monday, he was put in charge of Japan’s vaccine program.

“It could go either way,” he said of the Olympics.

Keith Mills, who was deputy chair of the organizing committee for the 2012 London Olympics, said he is sure plans have been drawn up for a cancellation.

“But I think they’ll leave it until absolutely the last minute in case the situation improves dramatically, in case the vaccinations roll out faster than we all hope,” Mr. Mills told the BBC on Tuesday. “It’s a tough call, I wouldn’t like to be in their shoes.”

Will vaccinations be required?

It’s not clear. Mr. Bach has urged all “participants” to be vaccinated. But he’s said athletes will not be required to. But that was the IOC speaking – the Japanese government could override this with different rules for entry and requirements for quarantines.

The Australian Open is having problems. What can the IOC learn there?

About 1,200 players, staff, and media have arrived for next month’s Australian Open. All participants were required to return negative COVID-19 tests before boarding flights for Australia. As of Tuesday, nine on those on the flights tested positive when landing in Australia. That has forced 72 players into a 14-day lockdown – since they were exposed on flights – as well as all other passengers on those flights.

In addition to athletes, the Tokyo Olympics will involve tens of thousands of staff, officials, judges, media, and broadcasters. And dozens of venues. Athletes are sure to be affected, jeopardizing years of training and, for most, their only shot at a medal.

Australian Open tournament director Craig Tiley said his experiences can teach Japan and the IOC how to deal with problems and setbacks.

“I think there’s a lot to be learned from this experience for the Olympic Games,” Mr. Tiley said. “Every single day we become better at it because we’ve learned from what happened yesterday – the mistakes you make.”

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This story was reported by The Associated Press. 

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