Tokyo Olympics Q&A: Six months out and murmurs of cancellation

The Tokyo Olympics are to open in six months on July 23. Should they take place during a spreading pandemic — vaccine or no vaccine?

People walk by posters to promote the Tokyo 2020 Olympics planned to start in the summer of 2021, in Tokyo on Tuesday. - AP

The Tokyo Olympics are to open in six months on July 23. Interestingly, Tokyo organisers have no public program planned to mark the milestone. There is too much uncertainty for that right now.

Tokyo and other parts of Japan are under an emergency order because of surging coronavirus cases with about 4,500 deaths attributed to COVID-19. Instead of a countdown celebration, the focus is on the virus and speculation around the Olympics being canceled. Should they take place during a spreading pandemic — vaccine or no vaccine? Organisers say they will with exact details yet to be revealed.

It’s been this way since the Olympics were postponed almost 10 months ago. There are always more questions than answers. Here are a few.

Q: When will a final decision be announced about holding the Olympics?

A: The International Olympic Committee and local organisers are adamant they will happen. Mark the date — March 25. That’s when the torch relay, heavily sponsored by Coca-Cola and Toyota, begins from northern Japan, crisscrossing the country for four months with 10,000 runners headed to Tokyo. It’s hard to imagine the relay going ahead, but the Olympics being cancelled. Remember, it was in late March last year that the Olympics were postponed.

Q: Recent polls show 80 percent in Japan want the Olympics cancelled or postponed. So why is Japan and the International Olympic Committee pushing ahead?

A: A key is the billions already “sunk” into the event, and the income Tokyo will generate for the IOC. The IOC gets almost three-quarters of its income from selling TV rights. Another 18 percent is from sponsors. Unlike other sports businesses like the NBA or English football, the IOC has only two major events — every four years — to rely on.

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Only five Olympics have ever been canceled, all during wartime: the 1916, 1940 and 1944 Summer Olympics, and winter games in 1940 and 1944. But that was before big money was involved.

Japan must also save face. It has spend at least USD 25 billion preparing the Olympics. In addition, China and Beijing will host the Winter Olympics in 2022. Japan would hate to cede the stage to China.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is framing the Olympics as “a proof of human victory against the coronavirus.”

Q: Will these Olympics look different?

A: Almost certainly. First, athletes will be told to arrive later than usual, and leave early. The idea is to keep the Athletes’ Village sparsely populated. It’s hard to imagine much interaction between athletes, the public and the media. Fewer athletes than usual are likely to appear in the opening ceremony. Japan media are reporting only 6,000 Olympic athletes will take part. The Olympics involve 11,000 athletes.

However, from the perspective of the television viewer, everything may look similar to previous Olympics. The venues are basically TV stages, and they look the same from one Olympics to the next. Fans are now accustomed to viewing sports events in empty stadiums.

ALSO READ | IOC expecting 6,000 athletes at Olympic opening ceremony

One caveat. Ticket sales account for USD 800 million in income for local organisers. No fans means lost revenue and more costs. Those costs must be absorbed by Japanese government entities. Several Japan government audits have estimated Olympic spending at USD 25 billion or more. All but USD 6.7 billion is public money. Local sponsors have also poured in USD 3.5 billion to the games. Will they get much “bang for their buck?”

Q: Why all the skeptical comments recently from several insiders — mainly senior IOC member Dick Pound, and Japanese minister Taro Kono.

A: Pound and Kono both answered the questions they were asked.

Pound was asked about the Olympics taking place. “I can’t be certain because the ongoing elephant in the room would be the surges in the virus." He also suggested athletes should be a high priority for a vaccine because they serve as “role models.” That contradicted IOC president Thomas Bach, who has said athletes should not be a priority.

Kono, a member of Suga's cabinet, acknowledged in an interview that the Olympics are in doubt.

“I should say anything is possible,” Kono said.

Kono is the former defence minister and is now the minister for administrative and regulatory reform. On Monday he was put in charge of Japan’s vaccine program.

“It could go either way,” he added of the Olympics.

Q: Will vaccinations be required?

A: Not clear. Bach has urged all “participants”to be vaccinated. But he’s said athletes will not be required to. But that was the IOC speaking. The Japanese government could override this with different rules for entry and requirements for quarantines.

Q: I see the Australian Open is having problems. What can the IOC learn there?

A: About 1,200 players, staff, media have arrived for next month’s Australian Open. All participants were required to return negative COVID-19 tests before boarding flights for Australia. As of Tuesday, nine on those on the flights tested positive when landing in Australia. That has forced 72 players into a 14-day lockdown — since they were exposed on flights — as well as all other passengers on those flights.

Now do the math. The Olympics and Paralympics will involve 15,400 athletes. And tens of thousands of staff, officials, judges, media and broadcasters. And dozen of venues. Athletes are sure to be affected, jeopardizing years of training and for most — their only shot at a medal.