The 2020 Summer Olympics haven’t been canceled or postponed. But people are starting to consider the possibility that they’ll be the next major event to go.
The Olympics are set to start July 24 in Tokyo. French Olympic Committee president Denis Masseglia told Reuters that if the COVID-19 coronavirus isn’t contained by the end of May, he couldn’t see how the Olympics could happen on time.
The comment contradicted Japan’s Olympic minister Seiko Hashimoto, who said March 13 that “The IOC and the organizing committee are not considering cancellation or a postponement – absolutely not at all.”
The IOC reinforced its commitment to starting the Olympics on time in a statement Tuesday, but hedged Hashimoto’s statement by saying there is “no need for any drastic decisions at this stage.”
“Any speculation at this moment would be counter-productive,” the IOC said in a statement. “The IOC encourages all athletes to continue to prepare for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 as best they can….The situation around the COVID-19 virus is also impacting the preparations for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, and is changing day by day.”
While professional sports leagues across the globe are delaying their events and seasons in preparation of an extended coronavirus quarantine, nothing would be as significant as an outright cancellation of the Olympics, a biennial event that’s estimated to contribute tens of billions of dollars to the Japanese economy. Amateur athletes in sports such as swimming and track and field can only participate in events every four years. Cancelling their shot at participation would be devastating to them, in addition to the thousands of Japanese small businesses counting on tourism that’s now in doubt.
33 million visitors expected
There has been a wave of sports cancellations over the past week, with events set to begin in May and June pushed back. The French Open announced on Tuesday it would push its tournament back from May 24 to Sept. 20. The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) announced it was delaying its Euro 2020 soccer tournament, set to start in June, by 12 months. The National Basketball League, Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League have all suspended their seasons already. The Kentucky Derby, which was originally scheduled for May 2, will be moved to Sept. 5.
While coronavirus hasn’t spread rampantly through Japan as it has in other countries, the Games require athletes from all over the world to fly to Japan and compete in close quarters — with or without fans. The situation in Japan might not matter if other countries fare worse or if international travel is banned or curtailed.
Cancellation will have a significant impact on economic growth in Japan, said former Bank of Japan board member Sayuri Shirai. Many local businesses have already made investments in restaurants and tourist activities to prepare for large international crowds.
“A lot of [small business] investment has been counting on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and now it’s not clear if we can hold it or not,” Shirai said. “This is quite a serious issue.”
Shirai said Japanese officials have maintained optimism because the economic impact to Japan would be devastating and the government “doesn’t want to talk about it.” She said cancellation would be the worst outcome and said “postponement to next year” would be a far better outcome for Japan. The BOJ had estimated 33 million visitors were set to visit Tokyo in 2020 and “aggregate construction investment associated with the Olympic Games will amount to a total of 10 trillion yen ($92 billion).”
Even if the Olympics proceed on time, the Games could be modified so that certain countries don’t participate or certain events don’t take place, said Joe Favorito, who has over 30 years of strategic communications experience in sports and entertainment.
“I think everything’s on the table right now,” said Favorito. “I think the feeling among senior executives is ‘say we’re going forward until we’re not.’ As soon as you start saying we may not be doing it, all you’ll hear is ‘we’re not doing it.’ An event like the Olympics affects many lives, not just the athletes.”