Should we host the Olympics amid the pandemic? Here’s all you need to know


This year, all indications have been for the games to go on as planned, even after Tokyo and other cities entered a third state of emergency in late April after a surge in Coronavirus cases

It is definitely a tough call to postpone the biggest sporting event in the world which has never been cancelled since World War II. Even after it was postponed in 2020, the organizers wanted to see it as the “light at the end of the tunnel”. But then, the Coronavirus pandemic had different plans. The virus is still on a rampage, but the games appear to be going ahead, in what would be the biggest world event of the pandemic era. However, it won’t definitely look the other years as there will definitely be a restriction on the number of spectators especially on people travelling from abroad to watch the game. Last year, before the postponement, some 600,000 foreign visitors were expected to attend. All of this also means a huge financial repercussion for Japan, which has spent billions of dollars to host the games, but the cost could be much higher if the virus causes the first Olympics cancellation. Now, the question is should we still go ahead and host the Olympics? It’s not merely a yes or now. Here’s what’s at stake.

When are the games supposed to take place?

From July 23 to August 8, 2021. The Paralympics would begin Aug­ust 24. It would be the first staging of a modern Olympics in an odd-numbered year. This of course depends on the pandemic being contained to such an extent that the games can go forward. Prime Min­i­s­ter Yoshihide Suga has already stated that he’s determined to hold the games. Organ­­i­zers have said the 2020 Olym­p­ics will be cancelled — not de­layed again — if they can’t go ahead as scheduled.

When will we know for sure?

Last year the plug was pulled in late March, when numerous countries were battling with the first wave of the pandemic. This year, all indications have been for the games to go on as planned, even after Tokyo and other cities entered a third state of emergency in late April after a surge in Coronavirus cases. Given the massive logistics of bringing all the athletes and officials to Japan, the sooner there’s certainty, the better. But there is still no certainty.

Who has to decide whether to host the Olympics or not?

The International Olympic Committee has the final say in this matter. Clause 66 of the host city contract cites various grounds for termination, including “if the IOC has reasonable grounds to believe, in its sole discretion, that the safety of participants in the games would be seriously threatened or jeopardized for any reason whatsoever”. The contract between the IOC and host city Tokyo is quite straightforward: There’s one article regarding cancellation and it only gives the option for the IOC to cancel, not for the host city.
That’s because the Olympic Games are considered “exclusive property” of the IOC, international sports lawyer Alexandre Miguel Mestre told the BBC. And as the “owner” of the Games, it is the IOC that can terminate said contract. Arguably, the pandemic could be seen as a major threat apart from war or civil dispute which are other reasons that could lead to cancellation.
The Olympic charter also stipulates that the IOC should ensure “the health of the athletes” and promote “safe sports”, Mestre says, but despite all this, the IOC seems determined to go ahead. So could the host country go against the IOC and pull out itself? “Under various clauses within this host city agreement, if Japan was to unilaterally cancel the contract, then by and large, the risks and losses would fall with the local organizing committee,” Professor Jack Anderson at the University of Melbourne told the BBC.


If the IOC says no, could the Olympics still be cancelled?

Yes, but the likelihood seems to be dropping with each passing day. Some factors that could lead to a cancellation would be new, virulent strains emerging even as cou­ntries implement vaccination programs across the board to control the spread. Japan has had some of the lowest infection numbers among developed countries, but it also has the lowest vaccination rate among the 37 members of the Org­anization for Economic Coop­eration and Develop­ment, according to Bloomberg’s vaccine tracker.
So, why does Japan need this to work out for them? Tokyo 2020 was supposed to be Japan’s international and regional coming out party, a way to show the world that “Japan is back.” TJ Pempel, a professor of Japanese history and politics at UC Berkeley, said regional competition is also part of Japan’s Olympic plan: China hosted a great Olympics in the year 2008, and Beijing is supposed to host the Winter Games in 2022; South Korea also pulled off the Winter Olympics in 2018. “It’s kind of a regional embarrassment for Japan if they can’t do this,” he added. The Tokyo Olympics are already the most expensive on record at more than $25 billion, with a couple of extra billion added because of the delay. Even if Japan won’t benefit from foreign visitors, business interests and media who have huge stakes in these games, a lot of money is riding on this.

What has postponement of the Olympics cost?

The bill is at least 300 billion yen ($2.8 billion), with the central government, Tokyo Metro­po­l­itan Government and organizing committee splitting the costs. The host city contract between Tokyo and the IOC doesn’t address postponement yet. The loss of overseas spectators was expected to lead to a fresh blow to a tourism industry counting on revenue from Olympic visitors to recoup losses from the pandemic. About 7.8 million tickets were made available for the Olympics before the delay, and organizers still haven’t decided on how many more tickets will be made available for the games.

What about the sponsors?

Sponsors have to redo their marketing plans, however, all of them retain their rights despite the postponement, including those with agreements expiring in 2020 when the games were postponed. The IOC’s top-tier global sponsors — an exclusive list of 14 companies including Coca-Cola Co and Visa Inc — pay well over $1 billion every four years to be associated with the Olympics. Those agreements tend to span multiple Olympics games, whereas local sponsors are in it just for this specific event. Tokyo organisers leaned on national pride to score a massive level of support from 68 domestic sponsors such as Asahi beer and Asics sneakers — raising more than $3.3 billion, triple the previous record for an Olympics. Well, that’s a lot of money, which might be all in vain if the games are finally cancelled.

Finally, has the Olympics ever been cancelled in history?

Five Olympic Games were scrapped, all because of world wars earlier. The summer games were cancelled in 1916, 1940 and 1944 as were the winter games in 1940 and 1944. The 1940 games, which were to have been hosted by Tokyo, were initially postponed, but later faced the same fate of cancellation. So, this is quite important for the host city Tokyo. The only time an Olympics got switched was when the 1976 winter games were moved to Innsbruck, Austria, from Denver after people in Colorado protested against spiraling costs.

Well, it’s still uncertain unless the IOC decides what should be done. We have already seen in India the Indian Premiere League (IPL) was cancelled mid-way following a lot of backlash from famous personalities and people. IPL is one of the highest-grossed cricketing events in India and it includes players from across the world that bring in a lot of revenue and sponsorships. This year while India was struggling to pull its head of deep water due to the third wave, the matches were being held in bio-bubbles. After several players got infected by the virus and severe criticism, the IPL had to be cancelled. That definitely did lead to a lot of financial losses but was money more important than saving lives? That’s a question we need to ask ourselves.


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