The text below was published on March 2, 2020, when COVID-19 seemed to loom as more of a theoretical threat than one that would truly take hold of our society. Only 22 days later, on March 24, the Olympic Games in Tokyo were officially postponed to 2021 to safeguard the health of athletes and spectators alike. This is the first time in history that the Olympic Games have been postponed or cancelled for any reason besides war.
The latest in the broad family of coronaviruses to grab headlines and mess with the best laid plans has many of us wondering: will we still see the 2020 Olympic Games happen in Tokyo, Japan?
The idea of cancelling the Olympics may seem crazy, and that isn’t far from the truth. The Olympics have only been called off once before, in 1940 due to the start of World War II. But with the coronavirus sweeping around the globe — and heavily concentrated in its traced origin country, China — the International Olympic Committee was forced to contend with the potential threat of non-containment.
Tokyo organizing committee director hasn’t thrown in the towel, though. Far from it, in fact. While caution is being exercised as the Games near their commencement, Yoshiro Mori says the committee has every intention of the show pressing on.
“I would like to make it clear again that we are not considering a cancellation or postponement of the games,” Mori said in a recent meeting with top officials from the International Olympic Committee. “Let me make that clear.”
How the Virus Has Impacted Lead-up Events So Far
Indeed, officials have been quick to dismiss the rampant speculation that the Games could see a cancellation. However, much precaution is still being taken in order to set the standard for success as early as possible; for instance, some test events have been limited or rescheduled to prevent unnecessary travel in and out of the country, which increases vulnerability to transmission. The field for one major marathon, hyped to be one of the big lead-up events to the Games, was even culled from its original starting number of 30,000 general participants to just 300 top runners. Spectators were urged to stay home in an effort to lower transmission risks.
To answer most of our biggest question: the future of the Games may be shrouded in some mystery mostly prompted by the uncertain terms of the virus’s viability and longevity, but cancellation is improbable and measures are being taken to secure their future.
Risks and Financial Downsides
Of course, there are other risks associated with the coronavirus, and they factor in regardless of the threat of cancellation of the Olympics. One such risk to consider is the potential impact the coronavirus may have on attendance and travel numbers. The virus has already hobbled the tourist and trade industries in some areas, causing the stock markets to take a sizable hit as a result. Investors are exercising caution as we await more updates on containment — and if those updates are less than positive, this could mean more uncertainty on the economic front.
Hosting the Olympics is a big financial task. The current tab sits close to $10 billion on total investment in the Tokyo Games, so finding a viable solution to preventing the further spread of the coronavirus is certainly in the organizers’ and the government’s best interests.
This cloud of uncertainty also affects the athletes who are on measured, strategic training schedules designed to allow them to peak at just the right time. The cancellation, postponement, or other changes to test and qualifying events can have an impact on these athletes.
For all these reasons and more, a final big picture of what these Olympic Games will look like remains a bit murky. But, as leader of the Sydney Olympics organizing committee Sandy Hollway was quick to point out, this wouldn’t be the first Games mired in some sort of controversy. Fellow coronavirus family member, zika, prompted extra preparation ahead of the 2016 Olympics in Rio, while the 2012 Olympics in London scrambled to solve a security hitch on the eve of the Games, to name just a few examples of previous iterations in the line of fire.
“I would have no doubt at all that the organisers of the Tokyo Olympics are doing that also in relation to this particular problem and doing it in a very rigorous, analytical, unpanicked, careful way,” he said in an interview with ABC News Australia.
That said, it’s still important to take virus outbreaks such as this coronavirus seriously. What does that mean for us? Exercising routine hygienic precaution (washing your hands, staying home when you're sick) and, most importantly, staying aware of your body and your health, will help keep the illness and spread at bay.
Written by Sally Spickard
Sally Spickard caught the horse bug at a young age and can still remember her first trip to the Kentucky Three-Day Event, which subsequently afflicted her with the eventing bug. Sally spends her days in San Diego, California and thoroughly enjoys her career telling the stories of our sport and assisting clients with their digital marketing needs.