From a public perspective, the choice was simple and obvious: postpone the Tokyo Olympics until 2021, in the face of global pandemic. Fine. Just hold it next year. For everyone involved in the Olympic movement, the problems were only just beginning.
Shortly before Easter, there was an alarming message from Toshiro Muto, the chief executive of Tokyo 2020, saying that the big show was still not guaranteed for next year. Perhaps he was reacting to the chaotic political reaction to the COVID-19 wave that seems to have finally hit Japan, but it was still surprisingly gloomy.
“I don’t think anyone would be able to say if it is going to be possible to get [the pandemic] under control by next July or not,” Muto said on Friday 10th April. “We’re certainly not in a position to give a clear answer.” A state of emergency has recently been declared in the country, and Japan is about to officially enter a recession.
We are of course firmly in uncharted territory. No Olympics in history has ever been postponed before, and the Olympics has never been larger or more complicated, against a backdrop of an ever-evolving global pandemic that is still not fully understood. Indeed, the start time of an Olympic event has apparently never moved before.
The global sports calendar has collapsed, with the biggest questions over further potential waves of coronavirus, and whether a vaccine will be ready in time for July 2021 – neither of which is answerable at the moment. Some have questioned whether the Paralympics will go ahead as re-planned next year. Dick Pound, the IOC’s media blunt instrument, even started flagging that Beijing 2022 might be under threat. It’s become a cliche, but we are in totally unprecedented times – for sport, and the world.
2021: WHY JULY?
After trying to put the decision off as long as possible, in the end, behind closed doors, there was enough agreement to hold it in the same July / August slot as before – with just a hint of rancour between the organising committee and the IOC. This frustrated a briefly nascent movement trying to push for either an October start or a spring Games. Both would bring logistical hurdles, and an autumn start crosses into Japan’s typhoon season. Both would also cut across some of the sporting calendar, but crucially avoid the worst of the summer heat and humidity in Japan; already casting a large potential shadow, with summer temperatures easily able to hit a murderous 41°C (106°F). The weather is bad enough that the marathon had already been forced to move to Sapporo following the sporting debacle in Doha last year.
But in the end, the interests of the broadcasters prevailed. The networks pay billions of dollars for broadcasting rights in that summer slot when the global sports calendar is otherwise quiet, thus increasing the chances of capturing a bigger audience.
Indeed, back in 2012, the IOC actually stipulated that bidders for 2020 need to hold the event between July 15 and Aug 31. The city of Doha offered to host the 2020 Games in October because of the oppressive summer heat in Qatar; published feedback from their unsuccessful bid indicated that that was a non-starter from the point of view of the broadcasters.
It wasn’t always like this. When Tokyo hosted the Summer Olympics back in 1964, they were held in October. The same thing happened in Mexico in 1968. But that was in an era where the attitude towards TV coverage was something like: “if you want to show it, please turn up with your cameras.” An exception was also made for Sydney in 2000, who held the Games in the last two weeks of September.
Now, the TV broadcasters are all powerful. As Neal Pilson, the former president of CBS Sports, which broadcast the Games in the USA in the 1990s put it to Reuters: “The Summer Olympics are simply of less value if held in October because of pre-existing program commitments for sports.”
Delaying the Games is going to cost a lot of money, and quite who is going to pay for it hasn’t been settled in detail yet.
The Games were originally costed at $12.6 billion, in US dollars. These things being what they are, the cost has more than doubled to around $26bn, according to an audit last year. All but around $6bn of that is public money. Estimates of the cost of delaying vary between $2bn and $6bn dollars, which will again have to be borne by Tokyo’s taxpayers. The IOC is also on the hook for “several hundred million dollars” of its own costs according to Thomas Bach, the IOC president, speaking to a German newspaper – shortly before he dodged direct questions about further postponement and the status of Russia in the event.
There are costs at almost every stage; the biggest of which are staff and venues. The staff include foreign and local workers, many seconded from the Tokyo Metropolitan government, all of which only had contracts until the end of September. All the venues and the athletes village had legacy plans which will have to be extended by force majeure if necessary, at immense cost. Thousands of tons of branding, infrastructure and equipment will have to be stored for another year. Suppliers will want paying.
The Tokyo 2020 President, former Prime Minister Yoshirō Mori warned the international federations (the governing bodies of each sport, such as World Archery) that they will be on the hook for some of it. In the best traditions of ultra-polite, obscurantist language, he said: “Deciding who will bear these costs and how it will be done will be a major challenge.”
The immense amounts of cash from broadcasters and sponsors for each Games is funnelled through the IOC, which makes a contribution to the operating costs of the organising committee. At the end of each Games, the rest of the money gets split up between the international federations, and national Olympic committees, as well as the IPC, WADA, and various UN projects. The IOC makes great show of the fact that 90% of the Games profits head back out the door to fund sport and humanitarian projects worldwide. After the last summer outing in Rio 2016, the federations received $520 million between them.
Clearly, the IOC’s contribution to Tokyo’s costs in this case will end up being be higher, and Mori was hinting that the pot would be smaller after the Games finally happen in 2021 – which means that the international federations will have a budget headache for the next Olympic cycle. Essentially, they will be partially paying for a delay which wasn’t their fault.
So the federations, expecting a large chunk of their operating budget for the next four years this autumn, already have a problem on their hands. With many of them based in Lausanne, the Swiss government has apparently come up with some bailout measures; unsurprisingly wanting to keep one of their more powerful financial engines turning. But further downstream, national Olympic committees and many precariously-funded national federations will likely be in significant trouble. With the world clearly heading for depression, corporate sponsor budgets for sport will start to dry up.
There are other financial issues; contracts for sponsorship by big ‘gold partner’ corporations such as Toyota only run until the end of the 2020 calendar year. They will be under pressure to extend these contracts, but some, looking at a huge downturn in business and fearing a major global depression, may start pleading poverty. Who will make up the shortfall? Tokyo hotels, holding on to the prospect of a windfall this summer, are already going out of business. Will there be enough room for the millions descending on the city next year?
Two big sub-Olympic competitions have had to postpone due to proximity to the big dance. The World Games, due to be held in Alabama in July 2021, has been pushed back a year. The World Athletics Championships, due to be held in Eugene, Oregon also in July next year, have similarly been pushed back a year. Most other sports (including archery) also hold their world championships in Olympic off-years. It seems likely that more 2021 events will see delays, adjustments, or even outright cancellations.
The World Masters Games were due to be held in Kansai, Japan in May 2021, and supposedly, sets of equipment and chunks of infrastructure from Tokyo 2020 were earmarked for use in the competition. The WMG is a huge tourism cash cow, but in a different city and run by a different government. The organisers are currently keeping tight-lipped about what will happen, but it is clear the event may be under threat – even if the Japanese federal government will be loathe to have a second major event on home turf cancelled. It’s difficult to predict what will happen here, but total cancellation would look terrible for all kinds of reasons.
There are dozens of issues, major and minor, to solve in fields as diverse as qualification, venues, volunteers, anti-doping and broadcasting. Age limits have resulted in a ruling that “next year’s” gymnasts (turning 16) will be eligible, and FIFA is expected to approve a move which will see the upper age-limit for the men’s football raised from 23 to 24 for the 2021 event. Issues of selection get ever more granular: as Bow International pointed out at the end of March, some nations had already publicly selected archery teams for their confirmed national spots. Will they honour those selections a year on?
Tom Dielen, the World Archery secretary-general was interviewed for the Around The Rings podcast on the future problems facing him. He mentioned that one of the confirmed Paralympic judges was within the age limit for 2020, but not for 2021. Should they make an exception? There were further issues with Paralympic athletes because of their invariably more complex needs.
Dielen reiterated that national governing bodies would be given two months notice or more of competition rescheduling or cancellation. He also mentioned that continental events might be easier to organise than international events, depending on the spread of the virus and the situation with air travel.
Archery around the world has stopped, and it is unclear of this writing exactly when it will restart. As the post-COVID-19 world gradually emerges over the next few months, it seems that everybody, including sports will have to continue thinking about social distancing for some time. As an outdoor sport, archery seems like it will have an easier time than some adjusting to the new normal, particularly with the sport’s deep commitment to camaraderie. Rules can be changed. Lines can be re-spaced.
THE NEXT 18 MONTHS
From a glance at the IOC’s blandly business-as-usual website, you’d think everything was just fine and dandy. You may not have noticed, with everything else going on, but the Olympic Flame was officially rekindled in Olympia in March and transported to Japan, where it is currently (and incongruously) being held in a ‘secret location’, to ensure crowds don’t gather in front of it.
Several media outlets criticised Thomas Bach, the IOC president, for proceeding with this ritual bit of Olympic arcana, a demonstration of the IOC’s insistence that the show must go on against a backdrop of rising deaths all over the world. In the meantime, the Russian sports minister is claiming that the anti-doping ban being served by hundreds of Russian athletes should be overturned against the current chaos, a call that could be described as opportunistic – at best.
With the Russian question remaining unsolved, Bach will be facing by far the toughest challenge of his presidential career over the next 18 months. He is also up for election in 2021; he has not officially confirmed his candidacy, but it would be a surprise if he did not run again. No real successor has yet emerged, but Bach is not universally liked in Lausanne and it is not impossible one could appear, especially if things start going south. (The Tokyo Metropolitan Government is also apparently up for re-election in 2021, and you feel they probably wish they weren’t.)
But it seems that with enough political and cultural will in Japan, all these problems are surmountable; in a coming depression, holding on to the vast and already-sunk costs with the prospect of a payoff down the road becomes even more important. Perhaps, after each country completes its three months (or so) of lockdown and slowly relaxes other containment measures, something like normality will start approaching again by the summer. Perhaps. The great fear is another wave of virus this time next year; some have even suggested that without an available vaccine against COVID-19, the Games simply cannot go ahead.
More widely, the summer Olympics is the single genuinely global event, and it would be be fitting, perhaps even vital for humanity to hold it at the end of a worldwide crisis.
But one thing is certain: there’s a lot of ground to cover before we can be absolutely sure of seeing an opening ceremony in Shinjuku on the 23rd of July, 2021.