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Why the 2020 Olympics Refuse to Accept the Inevitable

As the number of COVID-19 cases skyrockets worldwide, it’s clear to virtually everyone that the Tokyo Games should be postponed. So why does the IOC keep operating as if things will go on as planned?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

I keep not booking my plane ticket to Tokyo to cover the Olympics. It’s the only thing on my to-do list, and it’s big. I learned that I was credentialed for the 2020 Games a few weeks ago, completing a professional goal I set for myself on the night of the closing ceremony at the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio. And yet it seems absurd to even consider buying that ticket. The COVID-19 pandemic has caused virtually every sporting event on earth to be canceled, and nonessential international travel has been banned. But I’m supposed to fly to Tokyo in four months? Sure. I’ll just snag a round-trip ticket to Mars to watch Tupac and Biggie perform together while I’m at it.

Last week feels like it was last year; the idea of going into an office for work feels like something I read about in a history book. Honestly, I’m surprised when I look out the window and see that buildings are in the same place they were yesterday. Yet the International Olympic Committee insists that on July 24 the world will come together to celebrate the start of the 32nd Olympiad. I have to ask: In what world? Not this one, right?

It’s surprising enough that the Summer Olympics have yet to be postponed. But the public stance adopted by the stakeholders involved goes beyond that, as they seem unwilling to even consider the possibility that things might not go according to plan. IOC president Thomas Bach issued a statement last Tuesday that “the IOC remains fully committed to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.” Not only that, but Bach also said that “there is no need for any drastic decisions” and “any speculation at this moment would be counterproductive.” We’re not even supposed to speculate the Olympics schedule could be altered in any way. Bach followed that up by telling The New York Times that cancellation and postponement of the games are “not on the agenda.” And his messaging is not alone.

“We will overcome the spread of the infection and host the Olympics without problem, as planned,” Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe said on March 14. Seiko Hashimoto, Japan’s Olympics minister, recently said she expects an Olympiad “started on time and with spectators in attendance.” The country is currently carrying out its Olympic torch relay, drawing crowds of hundreds despite large gatherings being discouraged across the globe. Meanwhile, the deputy head of Japan’s Olympic committee, Kozo Tashima, has tested positive for the virus.

Last week, the IOC held a meeting with the heads of the national Olympic committees around the world about the coronavirus crisis—and somehow emerged with a variety of statements fully affirming the decision to proceed with the games. Sunday, the IOC finally admitted that it has to think about postponing the games, saying that it needs four weeks to come to its decision. However, the IOC statement also featured a long list of reasons it should not postpone the games, and included the defiant, baffling claim that “a cancellation of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 would not solve any of the problems or help anybody.” (Yes it would! It would solve the problem of having an international sporting event during a pandemic!)

Lausanne 2020 Winter Youth Olympics - Closing Ceremony
IOC president Thomas Bach
Matthias Hangst/Getty Images

Everyone else seems to understand how dire this situation is. Canada, which sent more athletes to the 2016 Rio Olympics than all but eight countries, just announced that it will refuse to send athletes to this year’s games if they are not postponed. Australia has told athletes to prepare for a 2021 Olympiad. The international governing body of track and field—just about the biggest sport at the Summer Olympics—has also called for postponement. A USA Today poll of American Olympians revealed 70 percent are in favor of postponing the games.

Of all the sporting events in existence, the Olympics are probably the most dangerous to hold during a global pandemic. Remember, this is an event that, by design, invites athletes from every country on the planet, puts them in the same place for two weeks, and then sends them home. The athletes even typically live together in one big apartment complex or village!

Practically every prominent organization has acknowledged the gravity of what’s happening, with many prioritizing public health over financial gain. All the while, the IOC continues to smile and pretend that everything is all right, offering reassurances completely uncoupled from reality. With alarm bells sounding and the mortality rate on the rise, the world needs a voice to calmly tell people what measures are in place to fix the problem. When the IOC acts as if there is no problem, it reveals problems of its own.

We don’t need to debate what it would take for a major sporting event to be canceled or postponed anymore. We’ve already seen them all go. Perhaps it’s better to consider what would need to happen for an international event like the Olympics to happen in July without potentially accelerating the spread of a highly infectious disease.

First, Japan would need to ensure that its residents and public spaces would not spread the virus. It’d be unthinkable to bring athletes, coaches, media, and fans into a nation where the virus is widespread only to send them back to their respective countries and trigger new waves of outbreaks across the globe. Thus far, the virus seems surprisingly contained in Japan. The country just recorded its 1,000th case of COVID-19 last week despite having its first case all the way back in January. The bad news is some feel this number is artificially low due to low numbers of testing, and that cases could spike in the near future. “My guess is that Japan is about to see the explosion and will inevitably shift from containment to delay-the-peak phase very soon,” Kenji Shibuya, a professor at King’s College London and a former chief of health policy at the World Health Organization, recently told Bloomberg. “The number of tests is increasing, but not enough.”

Second, every athlete competing in the games would need to test negative for the virus. That in and of itself would presumably knock several medal candidates out of contention, and the ones who test negative would have to quarantine themselves before and after the games. That also seems like a major issue. How would this quarantine be monitored on a consistent and global scale? How could athletes spend the two weeks before the biggest sporting event of their lives cooped up inside without training? And that’s not even accounting for how many tests would be required during a critical worldwide shortage of them.

Third, the games would need to determine which athletes would qualify. Athletes in many countries are currently not allowed to train. Almost all Olympic qualifying events have been canceled or postponed. In events where Olympians are widely drawn from pro sports leagues—basketball, tennis, golf, etc.—it’s unclear whether the leagues’ rearranged schedules will include breaks to allow athletes to compete in the Olympics. How can we expect the Olympics to answer the most complicated questions about holding an international event during a pandemic when it’s unclear how they would answer something as basic as Who even gets to compete?

Then there are the nonathlete components. Hashimoto, the Olympics minister, says she expects spectators to be in attendance. Would they all be tested, too? How would those visitors from overseas limit their interaction with others in a city with a population of more than 9 million? And what would happen with the media? Add it all up, and there’s a reason I still haven’t booked my plane ticket.

The Olympics are harder to cancel than other sporting events because the Olympics are totally unlike other sporting events. March Madness will be back again next year; the NBA, MLB, and NHL seasons could resume in a few months on truncated schedules. The Summer Olympics, by contrast, take place once every four years. Sure, athletes in Olympic sports can win world championships in non-Olympic years, but that often fails to bring the prestige of winning an Olympic medal. Athletes train precisely so that they reach their athletic peak during Olympic years.

Yet with their Olympic dreams in danger of disappearing, the athletes have been some of the loudest voices calling for cancellation or postponement of these games. “I’ve been training for the Olympics since I was a little kid,” American gymnast Colin Van Wicklen tweeted. “However … postponing the games is a must.” “I would love to be part of the Olympics once again, I have been waiting for it for four years” Greek pole vaulter Katerina Stefanidi said. “But I don’t see a situation where it would be safe for us to all be locked in the same Olympic village this year.” On Friday, USA Swimming put out a statement calling for the games to be postponed.

Despite such pleas, however, the IOC and Tokyo organizing committee remain steadfast that the games will go on as scheduled. This lays bare the driving force behind the Olympics stakeholders’ messaging: Even if some renowned athletes are willing to pass up a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete, the stakeholders refuse to pass up a once-every-four-years opportunity to get paid.

The IOC makes billions off of its broadcast deals with television networks around the world, and those would go up in smoke if the Olympics don’t happen. NBC paid the IOC $7.75 billion to broadcast the games between 2022 and 2032—with six Olympic Games in that period, that comes out to over a billion dollars per Olympiad. A deal for European Olympic broadcast rights was worth $1.4 billion for four games; the IOC’s deal with China’s television network is worth $550 million for four games. If there are no games to broadcast, the IOC would lose out on a gargantuan sum of money.

And Tokyo wants the Olympics to happen because it has spent billions of dollars building the stadiums and infrastructure needed to host the games. While the Japanese government says it’s only—only!—spent $12.6 billion on the games, an audit reveals that the total is likely about $28 billion. If the Olympics don’t happen, the country would get no return on investment. All it will be left with is arenas for random sports that might never be used. This is why the Olympics are moving full-steam ahead in a world that’s otherwise shuttering—the stakeholders feel like they have too much to lose.

Over the past few decades, we have seen how the Olympics’ operational model can be unsustainable and irresponsible. The stadiums from the 2004 Games in Athens crumbled as Greece plummeted into financial crisis in the late 2000s; the empty stadiums in Rio overlook a city that has answered gang violence with police violence. There is a growing global NOlympics movement, and the past few years have seen city after city vote against hosting the games, spanning from Munich to Krakow to Calgary. (Boston and Budapest withdrew their bids before voting.) Having the Olympics in a new place every four years is a great concept, but in 2020 the drawbacks outweigh the rewards.

Tokyo 2020 Olympic Flame Arrives Japan Tomohiro Ohsumi/Getty Images

The COVID-19 pandemic is exposing an even bigger problem with the Olympic model: When you host a hugely expensive event in a different city once every four years, the show apparently must go on—even at the risk of spreading an incurable disease. Three years ago, I wrote a post proposing the Summer Olympics be held in the same place every four years, or in a variety of cities across the globe. (The basketball events could be held in New York, the track and field events in London, the swimming in Beijing, etc.) I was mainly thinking about reducing the financial burden of hosting the games on an individual city, but I also suspect these models would limit the financial impact of, at the very least, acknowledging a global health crisis. Perhaps that could make the Olympic organizing committee less dead set on going forward with the games to recoup its losses.

The coronavirus has highlighted the flaws within many of our institutions, and the Olympics are no different. It’s time for the IOC to consider changes not only to the upcoming Olympiad, but to the way it operates in general. But to do so, it will have to acknowledge that there is a problem. If the 2020 Games are an indication, that seems to be the last thing on the IOC’s mind.