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How Postponement Changes the (now 2021) Tokyo Summer Olympics

From legacies to logistics, there are many unanswered questions after the IOC’s decision to postpone the Summer Games

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The 2020 Olympics will take place in 2021. The International Olympic Committee apparently wants to call the Summer Games in Tokyo the 2020 Olympics regardless of when they take place. Maybe they want to save some money in these desperate times—they already paid someone to design a logo and printed up all these banners! I also suspect they like thinking that nobody made them change their plans.

But of course, the IOC was forced to change its plans despite its initial resistance to postponing the Games amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Three days ago, IOC president Thomas Bach announced it would take four weeks to reach a decision on postponement. He was off by 26 days. Before Tuesday’s announcement, Australia and Canada had already announced they would withdraw athletes if the Olympics were held as previously scheduled in 2020. The USA—whose participation provides a massive financial boon to the games—had suggested that postponement was the best option. Even athletes wanted the games postponed, willing to sacrifice potential glory for their health. As the COVID-19 pandemic killed thousands, wrecked economies, and refused to abate, it became abundantly clear that it would be impossible to host a sporting event where athletes from every country on earth gather in one place and then head back to their home countries; the IOC was the last group of people to realize this, but eventually came to the only possible decision.

So: What effect will holding the Summer Games in 2021 have on the competition? Here are five ripple effects of the decision to hold the 2020 Olympics in a year they’re not named after.

Can we get another brilliant year from Simone Biles?

Gymnastics is a sport for the young. As humans get older, our bodies get less flexible, and the less flexible gymnasts’ bodies become, the less likely they are to accomplish the ridiculous turns and twists that win gold medals. A 20-year-old has not won Olympic gold in the women’s all-around since 1972. In fact, nine of the last 11 winners have been younger than 19. The latest outlier? Biles, who was 19 years and 144 days when she won all-around gold at the 2016 Summer Games in Rio. By winning four Olympic gold medals and a bronze in 2016, Biles had already cemented herself in the pantheon of the greatest gymnasts ever—because, for the most part, gymnasts are generally successful at only one Olympics. No woman has won all-around gold in back-to-back games since 1968—how could they, if aging four years all but eliminates elite contenders?

However, Biles has defied the sport’s aging curve. At 21 years old, she won gold in the all-around competition at the 2018 World Championships, her fourth—nobody else has ever won more than two. Last year, at 22, she won her fifth—and set a personal record for the largest margin of victory in a World Championship. She added a triple-double tumbling pass in her floor routine and a double-double dismount off the balance beam, moves that no gymnast had ever accomplished before, and which are now officially named after her.

After her dominant 2019 season, Biles was a heavy favorite to make history in Tokyo this summer. She’d already announced that she was planning to retire after the 2020 Olympics. Now, those Olympics will take place in 2021. Biles will be 24—young for most people, ancient for an all-around gymnast.

Biles is not the only aging athlete for whom an extra year might be detrimental. There’s 38-year-old Justin Gatlin, who became the oldest competitor to medal by winning silver in the 100-meter dash at last year’s World Championships in Doha and will now be forced to try competing at nearly 40 years old. Diana Taurasi and Sue Bird had hoped to win a fifth Olympic gold together in 2020, and will now try to do so at 39 and 40 years old, respectively. Somehow, 35-year-old Ryan Lochte claims he’s “all in” for the 2021 games as he continues his return from a 14-month WADA suspension. Megan Rapinoe will be 36, although age didn’t seem like a factor as she won the Golden Ball and Golden Boot at the 2019 World Cup.

But Biles was set to be the face of these games—the first without Michael Phelps and Usain Bolt. She’s the brightest star in the history of one of the games’ premier sports and has already been brilliant for longer than anybody before her. Does she have another year left?

Who’s gonna play soccer?

One quirk of the Olympics is that the men’s soccer tournament is handicapped to preserve the popularity of FIFA’s World Cup. The men’s tournament is composed of under-23 teams instead of full national teams, with countries allowed to select only three over-age players. It rarely produces huge moments for the game’s biggest stars in their primes—although Neymar made a point of showing off in Brazil last time—but the Olympics does allow young superstars to play on an Olympic stage. Here’s a young, greasy-haired Messi going nuts en route to gold in 2008.

So, for the 2020 tournament, 20 players on each team had to be born on or after January 1, 1997. Fourteen of the 16 berths in Tokyo had already been secured, all by teams under that age limit. (Team USA was trying to qualify from North America at an upcoming tournament that has been postponed.)

So what happens to all the players who turn 24 in between the start of 2020 and the start of 2021? The teams that have already qualified are understandably worried that the players who worked hard to get to Tokyo might be disqualified. It feels like the Olympics has to become a U-24 soccer tournament, if only for a year.

A bunch of people in Tokyo need to find new apartments

A key part of planning the Olympics is planning for after the Olympics. Who is going to play sports in these billion-dollar stadiums? Will people get to use the beautiful new swimming pools? What the hell are you going to do with a damn velodrome? (Nobody ever figures out what to do with the velodrome.)

The postponement of the games delays these plans. The organizers have to secure for 2021 all the venues they had promised to give up in 2020. It’s possible some venues won’t be available, causing a scramble for new venues or perhaps a reconfiguration of the games. The IOC did hint at a “curtailed” Olympics as a possibility, so it’s possible the events involved could shift. However, it seems more likely that the changed date will simply lead to a higher price tag as organizers try to lease venues that are already promised to other people. “It will likely come at a premium,” the director of venues from the 2012 London Olympics told Yahoo Sports. As far as I can tell, this is the biggest way the organizers stand to lose money from the postponement. So long as broadcasters and sponsors end up fulfilling their contractual obligations, albeit a year later, the biggest impact will be that the organizers will have to pay more rent. They almost held an international sporting event in a pandemic because their rent was going to go up.

So here’s a weird quirk: Like every other Olympic host, Tokyo built thousands of apartment units to temporarily house athletes during the games—the Olympic Village. After the Olympics, those buildings are supposed to become apartments for regular people, and in a city as densely populated as Tokyo, where housing is at a premium, there was apparently quite a market for them. A story from August reported that over 1,500 applications had come in for the first 600 units.

Presumably, everybody who bought or leased apartments in the Olympic Village assumed they’d be allowed to move in after the Paralympics ended in September. Now, uh … I guess everybody needs to head to Japanese Zillow to find a new place to live for a year?

A lot of rejiggered sports schedules

Many Olympic sports schedule their World Championships in non-Olympic years. For example, FINA, the international governing body for swimming, and World Athletics, the international governing body for track and field, both hold their world championships in odd-numbered years. These are the big money-makers for these organizations. For example, FINA reported revenue of $32 million in 2018, when it did not have its World Championships, but $78 million in 2017, when it did.

Now, the Olympics are in 2021. What’s going to happen to all the 2021 events—like, for example, the World Athletics Championships scheduled for Eugene, Oregon? The easy answer is to just bump everything a year and hold championships in back-to-back years in 2022 and 2023, but we’ll see what happens.

There is some question about what will happen with regard to qualifications for the Olympics. 57 percent of the spots in the Olympics had already been decided before the decision was made to postpone, and some wonder whether athletes would be forced to redo those qualifications. This seems unlikely—even Des Linden, who finished fourth in the United States marathon trials in February, missing a spot in the games by 11 seconds, says the three women who finished ahead of her shouldn’t have to requalify. However, the qualification events for the 43 percent of sports that had not been decided will have to be rescheduled.

I’m also curious about what will happen to athletes in various professional leagues that have had to postpone their schedules. For example, the NBA season currently has no restart date, but the league is supposedly planning on finishing the 2019-20 season sometime in the late summer, then taking a quick break before an abridged 2020-21 season. That means athletes would’ve been almost certain to skip any 2020 Olympiad so they could play in a league that pays them millions. But what will happen in 2021? I have to assume most elite NBA players will want to rest after what could feel like a two-year-long season.

Another year of scrounging

Most Olympic athletes are not millionaires. Sure, some compete in sports with widely popular professional leagues, like NBA players, tennis stars, and pro golfers. And some stand to become millionaires based on their success at the Olympics. But for many American Olympic hopefuls, financial security is not guaranteed. Some elite athletes in some sports receive stipends from the USOC to train full time, and some have sponsorships; but for many, there are few financial rewards to pursuing a berth in the Olympics. If you’re America’s sixth-best weightlifter or someone hoping to land a spot on an Olympic field hockey team, there aren’t a ton of ways to make money off your athletic career.

There are hundreds of athletes across the country who circled 2020 on their calendars as their deadline year. Money would be tight in the short term, but it would be worth it if they could make the Olympics. After that, they could pursue their long-term careers, knowing they did everything they could in their sport. Perhaps they’d win a gold medal, get the $37,500 reward the USOC pays out to gold medalists, get to appear in a Gatorade ad, and turn it into a legitimate career.

The IOC will get its payments eventually; athletes in major sports will get paychecks from their professional leagues. When I think about the people hurt the most by the Olympic delay, I keep thinking about the athletes who were already stretching thin to make it to Tokyo this year—a stretch that will surely be compounded by global economic hardship associated with the coronavirus. These athletes will have to work hard to keep reality at bay as they try to keep living their Olympic dream for another year.