Coronavirus: could the Tokyo Olympics be cancelled?

Can the Olympics be cancelled? Has it ever happened before? As the coronavirus epidemic spreads, the Tokyo 2020 Games face growing uncertainty.

Published : Mar 11, 2020 02:00 IST , TOKYO

Since the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896, the only reason that a Games has been cancelled is because of the world wars. Can the coronavirus change history?
Since the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896, the only reason that a Games has been cancelled is because of the world wars. Can the coronavirus change history?

Since the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896, the only reason that a Games has been cancelled is because of the world wars. Can the coronavirus change history?

The 2020 Olympics is due to open in Tokyo on July 24 but with coronavirus sweeping the world, there is growing concern that the Games will be either postponed or even cancelled.

Following the postponement of Euro 2020 and a multitude of other sports events worldwide, there is increasing scrutiny on the International Olympic Committee (IOC) which has been accused of shying away from making a decision.

So will the Games go ahead? And when will a decision be made?

AFP looks at the options


Q: Have the Olympics ever been cancelled before?

A: Since the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896, the only reason that a Games has been cancelled is because of the world wars.

The outbreak of World War I saw the cancellation of the 1916 Games which was slated for Berlin while World War II accounted for Sapporo (winter) and Tokyo (summer) in 1940, and Cortina d'Ampezzo (winter) and London (summer) in 1944.

Since then there have been three major boycotts, in 1976 (Montreal), 1980 (Moscow) and Los Angeles (1984) but none was cancelled.

The 2004 Games in Athens was unaffected by the SARS virus of 2002-03 while the mosquito-bound Zika virus raised concerns ahead of Rio 2016 before fading in the run-up to the Games.

Q: Could the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo be cancelled?

A: In theory, the IOC has the power to cancel the Games or to relocate them away from Tokyo. The organisation does not yet appear to be considering either option, but on Wednesday acknowledged there was no “ideal” solution.

“This is an exceptional situation which requires exceptional solutions,” an IOC spokesperson said after criticism from top athletes that they would be forced to take health risks should the Games go ahead.

The response came a mere 24 hours after the IOC said it remained “fully committed” to the Tokyo Olympics, stressing with more than four months to go there was “no need for any drastic decisions at this stage”.

Latest figures on Thursday indicated Japan has had 914 cases of coronavirus including 31 deaths.

With the worsening of the coronavirus crisis, the possibility of cancellation of the Tokyo Olympics cannot be entirely ruled out.

Q: Who will make the decision on whether the cancel the Games or not?

A: The power to cancel the Olympic Games formally rests with the IOC. The contract signed between the IOC and Tokyo provides that the IOC can withdraw the organisation of the Games from the host city “if the safety of the participants is seriously threatened”.

IOC president Thomas Bach has repeatedly said that starting on schedule on July 24 remained the organisation's goal. “Neither the word cancellation nor postponement was mentioned,” he said earlier this month.

The IOC reiterated to AFP on Thursday that its position was based on “daily exchanges” with a taskforce consisting of the World Health Organisation (WHO), the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee, the Japanese authorities and the Tokyo Metropolitan Government.

“Our medical and scientific director, Richard Budgett, is in touch several times a day with the WHO and reports to those concerned, including the president,” said a spokesperson.

US President Donald Trump has suggested postponing the Olympics for 12 months, although Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe responded by pledging his country would host the Games as planned.

Bach has insisted the IOC will follow WHO recommendations.

Q: Could the 2020 Olympics be postponed?

A: In theory yes. The IOC entrusts the organising committee with the mission of organising the Olympic Games in a specific year.

A decision to postpone could lead to Japan losing the Games altogether. However, this can be modified with two-thirds of the votes of the IOC members who could thus decide to postpone them.

In practice, it would be more difficult to fit a rescheduled Olympics into a hectic sporting calendar. Smaller federations may be able to accommodate at short notice but bigger sports such as football, basketball and tennis may struggle with any shift in dates.

Broadcasters such as NBC, who have paid a substantial amount of money for the rights and have already sold over $1.25 billion of advertising, will also be distinctly unhappy about a postponement that forces them to put the Games up against other high-profile and profitable leagues such as the NBA.

World athletics chief Sebastian Coe admitted Thursday the Olympics could be moved to later in the year -- although he said it was too early to make a definitive decision.

“Anything is possible at the moment,” Coe, a member of the Tokyo Olympics Games Coordination Commission, told the BBC when asked whether the Games could be postponed to September or October. “Nobody is saying we will be going to the Games come what may,” he added.

Olympic pole vault champion Katerina Stefanidi also said athletes were being forced to take health risks.

“The IOC wants us to keep risking our health, our family's health and public health to train every day?” Stefanidi tweeted. “You are putting us in danger right now, today, not in 4 months.”

International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach1

Q: Could the Games be held behind closed doors?

A: So far 4.5 million tickets have been sold in Japan, with around 7.8 million expected to be sold overall, 20 to 30 percent of them internationally.

Japan's tourism ministry in 2018 projected around 600,000 foreign spectators would come for the Olympics, a significant economic windfall.

“Organising an Olympics behind closed doors is an 'impossible and unrealistic' option,” said Patrick Nally, the Briton who founded the IOC's 'TOP' sponsorship programme.


Q: When will a decision be taken?

A: The IOC has not said anything on this matter, only repeating that it has confidence in the “success” of the event. It is not surprising given that any prevarication or uncertainty might lead to a dip in ticket sales and could also affect athlete preparation.

Dick Pound, the former head of the World Anti-Doping Agency, who is an IOC member, is one of the few to have popped his head above the parapet. “At some point, whether it's two months out or one month out, somebody is going to have to decide 'Yes' or 'No',” Pound said last month.

The IOC added any decision it takes on the staging of the Games “will not be determined by financial interests, because thanks to its risk management policies and insurance it will in any case be able to continue its operations and accomplish its mission to organise the Olympic Games”.

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