TOKYO >> With the pandemic still unresolved, the options for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics have been reduced to an “either-or” situation.
“Either the games take place or they’re canceled,” said Richard “Dick” Pound, the longest serving member of the International Olympic Committee, during a telephone interview with the Japan Times.
“COVID-19 is not going to be gone by July 2021,” he went on, adding that postponing again is not an option. “The fact that it’s under full — or virtually full — control in Japan doesn’t answer all the questions.”
Staying the course would give the country’s battered economy a lifeline, while canceling would guard against exposure to what could still be an ongoing pandemic. Neither option is ideal. But if the games are to be canceled, experts remain divided over how soon the decision needs to be made.
Last week, the Tokyo Organizing Committee announced that members agreed in late September to reduce the event’s total budget of $12.7 billion by $283 million — roughly 2% — for a simplified games next summer. That $283 billion, however, is a fraction of the additional cost unleashed by the one-year delay, which organizers estimate could exceed $2.8 billion and push the total budget past $15.1 billion.
Media and business sponsors appear nervous, with reports of some ending their contracts. Renewal negotiations are expected to begin later this month.
“The cost of canceling the games depends on the timing,” said Andrew Zimbalist, economics professor at Smith College in Massachusetts. “Canceling beyond December could cost more than holding the games and trying to recover the losses.”
The issue resurfaced in early September after organizers and political leaders doubled down on their support of the current plan.
The 2020 games will proceed “with or without COVID-19,” proclaimed International Olympic Committee Vice President John Coates and Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto. Tokyo 2020 President Yoshiro Mori and Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said the games will be held “no matter what,” while Olympic Minister Seiko Hashimoto said they will happen “at any cost.”
“I regard those comments as hortatory — they’re meant for public consumption as words of encouragement but they shouldn’t be interpreted as actual projections of reality,” Zimbalist said.
The sequence of coordinated statements suggests a decision has already been made, said sports journalist Aaron Bauer.
“When you have all the groups in lockstep, that means there’s a lot of decisions that have already been (made) behind the scenes,” Bauer said. “They still have to figure out how to get athletes from countries that are in hot spots to areas where they can train safely and participate in the Olympics at peak athletic capability.”
The games were expected to draw more than 15,000 athletes from over 170 countries. As the pandemic continues to upend life in all corners of the globe, it’s impossible to predict how much of the original plan will remain come next summer.
Last month, the government put forward virus countermeasures for athletes before and after they have entered the country. They will be asked to monitor their health within the 72 hours before they leave their own country. Upon arrival, they will be tested again and their movements will be monitored during their stay.
Worldwide, the novel coronavirus has infected 36 million and taken more than a million lives. Recent numbers indicate many Western countries are on the precipice of a second wave.
The situation in Japan is significantly less severe. As of Oct. 13, the country has recorded more than 89,000 infections and over 1,600 deaths.
Other southeast and east Asian countries — Taiwan, Singapore and Hong Kong among them — all saw waves of new infections but more recently seem to be in a lull.
In September, IOC President Thomas Bach warned that a COVID-19 vaccine won’t act as a “silver bullet.”
The timing and efficacy of a vaccine will largely determine how quickly the world rescues itself from this crisis. However, factors such as the rate of production, price and the willingness of individuals to take the vaccine could create a bottleneck, said Kenji Shibuya, director of the Institute of Public Health at King’s College London.
We may see a vaccine developed by the end of the year, Shibuya said, but the real question is whether it’s effective, lasts long enough and not only prevents symptoms but blocks transmission as well.