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“THE PREPARATIONS for the games are, as we have repeatedly stated, making rapid progress,” promised an official from the Japanese Olympic Committee, even as the crisis deepened. Despite mounting doubts from athletes and sporting federations, the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) would not contemplate a delay: “The Tokyo games will and must go on.” Such were the vows made in 1938 by the organisers of the 1940 Olympics—which never took place. Japan was trying to reassure the public that the “China Incident”, ie, its invasion of its gigantic neighbour, and China’s continued resistance, would not hurt its ability to host the Olympics. It eventually had to cancel the event later that year. Japan was delusional then because it was a military dictatorship, bent on subjugating Asia, heedless to the huge casualties it was causing. These days, it is a model global citizen. But, for the second time, Tokyo faces having an Olympics derailed—on this occasion, by the covid-19 pandemic.
As happened eight decades ago, the Japanese authorities and the IOC kept insisting, long after everyone else stopped believing them, that all was going to plan. On March 17th the IOC said there was “no need for any drastic decisions at this stage”, and that it was “fully committed” to holding the Olympics in July, even as betting markets gave that outcome a 15% probability. On March 20th the Olympic flame duly arrived in Japan from Greece. But after that things unravelled quickly. Three days later Australia and Canada announced they would not send teams to an Olympics held in Tokyo in July and August. Britain, France and America urged the IOC to reach a decision quickly.
The same day, the Athletics Association, a union for track-and-field competitors, published a poll of more than 4,000 members, 87% of whom said that the pandemic had adversely affected their preparations. The disruption has been serious enough for 78% to prefer a postponement (see chart). Moreover, several sports stars complained that they were having to risk their safety in order to keep fit. World Athletics, the governing body for track-and-field, said a July event was “neither feasible nor desirable”, as the uneven spread of the virus was hampering some national teams more than others.
On March 24th Japan and the IOC bowed to the inevitable. Abe Shinzo, Japan’s prime minister, told reporters that he and Thomas Bach, the IOC’s president, were in “100% agreement” about postponing the games. A joint statement from the IOC and the Tokyo organising committee said they would be rescheduled to next year, but not later than the summer, in order “to safeguard the health of the athletes, everybody involved in the Olympic games and the international community”.
Another reason for delay came with a recent spike in covid-19 infections in Tokyo. Japan seemed to have successfully contained the virus, with only 14 deaths in the past seven days, but on March 23rd Koike Yuriko,Tokyo’s governor, expressed alarm about a surge in new cases and warned that Tokyo might have to impose a lockdown. This followed a long holiday weekend in which many crowds had ignored social-distancing guidelines to enjoy the annual tradition of collective cherry-blossom viewing in Tokyo’s parks.
For Mr Abe, postponement of the games is a personal embarrassment, in light of his long refusal to countenance a delay to what has become a legacy project for him. The games were intended to mark the country’s definitive recovery not just from the devastation of the earthquake-tsunami-nuclear disaster of 2011, but more broadly from the gloom of the country’s post-1980s inertia. Postponement, however, also represents a partial victory for Mr Abe. The alternative, after all, was cancellation. He is reported to have won the consent of other G7 leaders in a teleconference last week. He apparently still hopes to freight the games with weighty historic symbolism: of the world’s triumph over coronavirus.
The long indecision, however, was also about money. Behind the scenes, the IOC and Tokyo began negotiating some time ago about how to divide the cost of a postponement, suspects John Mehrzad, a sports lawyer at Littleton Chambers in London. He notes that the two organising bodies have a “huge number of contracts and liabilities to consider” and have been consulting the relevant partners for several weeks. The IOC and Tokyo have insurance policies for the games, but both are reported to cover less than $1bn.
In contrast, the games will cost an estimated $25bn in all, nearly four times the original budget. Broadcasters, who paid around $4bn for the previous four-year Olympic cycle, will have handed over much more this time, and now have empty schedules in July. Sponsors for the 2020 games have already forked out more than $3bn to have their brands shown to the world. At least one-sixth of the 5,600 apartments in the athletes’ village have been sold, leaving buyers without houses for another year.
The organisers are likely to face litigation over the delay, says Mr Mehrzad. But at least the games, when they happen, will enable them to generate income to recoup some of the investment. Even though it may be many years before the full financial cost of the postponement becomes clear, it will be cheaper, it is hoped, than cancellation. And a short delay would be something of a silver lining for Japanese residents. The previous time, they had to wait until 1964 for a home Olympics—an interlude of 24 years. And, whenever they happen, says Ms Koike, these games will always be known as the “2020 Olympics”. Not that this year is one likely to provoke nostalgia.
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