Coronavirus cancellations: Is the Tokyo Olympics next?

The marquee quadrennial event has emerged unscathed from the shadows of the Zika virus but with the novel coronavirus, things look a lot more serious.

If the coronavirus continues to progress the way it is now, there just may not be any Tokyo Olympics in July-August.   -  Getty Images

There will be no Australian Grand Prix, or a race in Shanghai. There won’t be any Players’ Championship golf either. The NBA has been suspended indefinitely. Closer home, the Indian Premier League (IPL) 2020 has been pushed back by a fortnight, with no clear date of resumption. And if things continue to remain the same with regards to the novel coronavirus, there just may not be any Tokyo Olympics in July-August.

The Japanese government and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have been insistent, to the point of obduracy, that the Games will begin on July 24, as scheduled, and be organised according to plan. While the IOC has also said it will follow World Health Organization (WHO) directives and wait till May for any final decision, its public posturing of confidence is understandable.

Four years ago, the sporting world was in a flux leading up to the Rio Olympics as the Zika virus threatened the quadrennial games. There were a few pullouts, mainly among golfers and a few tennis players, and general health concerns, but the Games themselves were never under any risk.

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The shadows threatening the Tokyo Olympics are a lot more real. The novel coronavirus, or COVID-19, has already been declared a pandemic by the WHO, only the second time in recent history that the organisation has used the moniker, the previous one being the 2009 H1N1 influenza, or swine flu. But there is more behind the Tokyo scare.

The six-month leadup to any Olympics is usually the busiest time for sporting federations (organising qualifying and test events) and athletes (trying to qualify or fine-tune). This year, though, the entire schedule has been thrown in disarray.

Judo qualifying ends on May 25 but all events including the qualifiers are off till April 30. The African and Asian weightlifting championships have been postponed or cancelled, with the international body allowing lifters to register for out-of-zone events, provided those are held on time.

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The six-month leadup to any Olympics is usually the busiest time for sporting federations (organising qualifying and test events) and athletes (trying to qualify or fine-tune). This year, though, the entire schedule has been thrown in disarray.   -  Getty Images

Shuttlers are in a worse situation. The badminton qualification period ends on April 26 and three events have already been cancelled. The India Open, scheduled to be held without spectators, is now uncertain after the Delhi government ordered the cancellation of all events.

The rowing qualifiers in Italy and Korea have been cancelled. Several qualifying events for sports including boxing and basketball have been shifted.

The absence of any clarity on qualifications means those yet to book a Tokyo ticket have been left hanging. Unfortunately, their respective national or international federations are equally helpless, hamstrung as they are by a combination of factors – the worldwide spread of the virus resulting in absence of host cities, uncertainty about the future course of the pandemic, and the participation of athletes in or from infected areas.

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Of course, all this is assuming there will be an Olympic Games that the athletes are striving to participate in. Japan is going allout to ensure that it happens. It is a matter of pride for the Japanese, but there are more practical issues as well. With the world economy already plunging, cancellation of the approximately $28 billion (including broadcast, sponsorship and infrastructure expenses) Games might just end up crippling Japan to unforeseen levels. And that would just be one part of the eventual costs.

The hotel and tourism industry will be hit hard. Postponing the Games would lead to logistical issues. World sports work on fine margins in terms of hosting windows. Any change in the existing schedule would mean clashing with other major events through this year and a domino effect through the coming years.

There are suggestions of holding the Games without spectators. The scale might be reduced too – the Olympic Flame welcome party has already been cut to less than half. Contact sports like judo and wrestling remain high on the list of events that may get the axe in case organisers decide to curtail the programme. There nevertheless remains the threat of mass withdrawals in case of participation of athletes from affected areas.

Cutting off all social contact and self-quarantine seem, as of now, the only options. Which, being impossible in sports, has led to a dilemma: cancellation or postponement of events. Consider these: Inter Milan played its Europa League game at home in front of empty stands in late February, but the competition itself, along with the Champions League, has now been suspended, as is the English Premier League.

Japan has reported 639 cases of the virus with 16 deaths so far (as of March 13)   -  Getty Images

The Association of Tennis Professionals (ATP) has suspended the men’s tour for six weeks. The Professional Golfers’ Association Tour has already cancelled five tournaments so far. Italy as a nation is in complete lockdown, and all sporting events, all the way from the Serie A to community recreational sports, have been suspended. FIH Pro League Hockey matches in Europe have been postponed.

The biggest concern, of course, are the events and camps within Japan itself. The Professional Baseball League has been delayed; the J-League football continues to remain suspended; the Spring Honbasho, one of the top-six sumo tournaments, will be held behind closed doors for the first time since World War II. Olympic Test events in rugby and shooting have already been cancelled. Mongolia’s archery team abandoned an Olympic training camp in Okazaki last month. Colombia’s table tennis and gymnastics teams cancelled their respective camps in Kitakyushu.

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Even though the actual fatality rate is quite low, it’s the frightening speed of its spread. Given the long incubation period for the virus in a host, the fact that not everyone receiving the virus is actually getting sick or showing symptoms but remaining carriers nevertheless, and the absence of any verified medication make it a triple whammy for those trying to control it.

As of 8.00 pm on Friday, there were 137,066 confirmed cases worldwide according to real-time tracking by Johns Hopkins University with 5,069 deaths worldwide, with more being added every hour. While China, where the disease originated, was the most affected, Italy and Iran follow with more than 10,000 cases each. Japan had 639 cases with 16 deaths.