Could coronavirus cancel the Olympics? 'This is not a manufactured crisis'

The 2020 Tokyo Olympics are a $25 billion operation. They’re the subject of dreams, of entire lives of training, of a decade of intensive planning. It makes sense, then, that organizers would go to considerable lengths to quell fears that a mysterious coronavirus could impact the Games. “Preparations,” the IOC has said in a blanket statement, “continue as planned.” And Tokyo organizing committee CEO Toshiro Muto: “Our basic thoughts are that we will go ahead with the Olympic and Paralympic Games as scheduled.”

Yet as COVID-19’s global case toll reached 80,000 this week, and as the disease spread throughout Asia and to Europe, concern simmered. And on Tuesday, the IOC’s most senior member gave it a prominent voice. Dick Pound used the word “cancellation,” the news media sounded alarms, and for the first time, the possibility that the coronavirus outbreak could shutter the Olympics became real.

On Wednesday, Pound picked up his phone again.

He’d seen some of the reaction to his comments. “And I think either I missed the point or some of the reporters missed the point,” he told Yahoo Sports. “My point was, we are a go for July 24, [as of] today. It’s a very fluid situation. And nobody knows enough about the virus. And that might change. But for now, July 24 is the Opening Ceremony.”

Then, however, he acknowledged the key point, the one the IOC hadn’t made transparently enough, its effective silence on the coronavirus stoking more uncertainty than it quelled. “We would be reckless, in the face of the first major outbreak since SARS or Spanish flu, not to be thinking about what the implications may be,” Pound said.

“This is not a manufactured crisis like there was in Rio with Zika,” he clarified. “That was an invented crisis that was debunkable right from the start, but got lots of play because it sounded neat. This is real. It has the potential to become a genuine pandemic.”

Activists stage a protest in front of the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) against the holding of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on Feb. 26. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI/AFP)
Activists stage a protest in front of the headquarters of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) against the holding of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games on Feb. 26. (Photo by Fabrice COFFRINI/AFP)

So, he says: “I assume, on some wall in the IOC headquarters, there’s a big board where people are looking at: What are the alternatives if we’re not able to proceed on July 24?”

To answer that question and others, Yahoo Sports spoke with Olympic movement veterans and economists and infectious disease experts. They painted a picture of unknowns and logistical ordeals and billions of dollars potentially wasted.

But first of all: What are the chances these alternatives are even necessary?

What are the chances the coronavirus affects the Olympics?

The Olympics remain five months away. Which, in a coronavirus context, is a good thing. Because if they were in March, given the virus’ current state, “I think there would be very serious discussions about postponing,” says Bill Schaeffner, an infectious disease specialist at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center.

Instead, they’re in July and August. And, as Schaeffner explains, “It’s possible that this virus, like other winter respiratory viruses, will abate once the spring comes in. If it’s like the coronavirus that usually affects human beings, and just gives us a cold, like flu, it’s seasonal, and it will essentially disappear during the warmer months.

“But this is a rogue virus, and we don’t know that it will do that,” he continues. “We’re not sure that this rogue coronavirus has read the textbook and knows what to do.”

That’s the problem with any speculation about the virus and its potential impact, experts say. “There’s so much uncertainty,” Schaeffner says. “Even we — respiratory virus and public health experts – have very cloudy crystal balls.” Which is why Olympic officials will likely wait as long as possible to make any definitive decision. Pound set mid-May as a rough deadline. Between now and then, the IOC will confer with the Japanese government, the Tokyo organizing committee and the World Health Organization. They’ll monitor, digest, interpret and discuss the latest information on COVID-19.

Their eventual decision, to be clear, will not be “binary.” That’s the word James Bulley uses. Bulley was the director of infrastructure for the 2012 Olympics, part of the London organizing committee’s senior leadership team. This is not, he says, a choice between cancellation and full-go. Organizing committees, Bulley explains, outline complex contingency plans years in advance for everything from serious terrorist threats to pandemics.

“There were some measures we had in place, some extraordinary measures we had in place — which I don’t even know if I can talk about — which would’ve enabled us to handle a major outbreak of a disease or a virus,” he says of 2012. “And I think, given the implications, the magnitude of cancelling an Olympic Games, one way or another, we need to look at mitigation measures to make this thing work, so the show still goes on.

“So you can imagine, then, that extraordinary measures would be put in place. And I’ve seen some of those things that can be done when we did London. If we have a major outbreak of something in the Olympic park, for example, and you’ve got 200,000 people in the park, there were measures that we put in place that meant every one of those people coming out of the park would be picked up and treated. … Anything that happened would have been dealt with there and then. So there are things that you can do, quite significant and drastic measures that you can take, to keep people safe if you need to.”

The most drastic safety measure, though, is cancellation. And there’s a reason Pound mentioned it. Because alternatives range from logistically burdensome to impossible.

Construction workers walk past at a construction site of a building displaying Tokyo 2020 Olympics emblem and logo in Tokyo, Japan on May 23, 2017. (Reuters)
Construction workers walk past at a construction site of a building displaying Tokyo 2020 Olympics emblem and logo in Tokyo, Japan on May 23, 2017. (Reuters)

What are the alternatives to cancellation?

The disruption of a major international sporting event by a viral outbreak would not be completely unprecedented. Seventeen years ago, SARS swept through China as it prepared to host the Women’s World Cup. In April 2003, FIFA said there had been no talk of moving the tournament out of China. A month later, FIFA moved the tournament out of China. It was ultimately played in the U.S. on the original September timeline, largely without a major hitch. Relocation was successful.

But relocation, says Victor Matheson, a sports economist who has written on the economics of the Games, “almost certainly would not be possible with the Olympics.”

“I would totally agree with that,” says Bulley, the London organizing committee exec. “You can’t do an Olympic-level event in just a few months. I mean, it’s taken Tokyo seven years to prepare. No city is ready to switch on the lights and host a Games. It’s impossible in the sort of timeframe we’re talking about.”

Plus, the threat of the coronavirus is less about Japan. It’s more about the hundreds of thousands of people who’ll travel to Japan from around the world, who’ll gather in close quarters, and who may or may not be carrying the virus. Moving the 2020 Olympics to London or Los Angeles wouldn’t address that risk.

Relocation on short notice, experts agree, is not an option. Nor is a postponement to September or October. NBC paid $1.1 billion for the right to broadcast the Games, in part because they fill a void on the sports calendar. Competition from the NFL, college football and the MLB playoffs would make an autumn time slot unworkable. The global soccer calendar creates a similar dynamic in Europe. If the IOC proposed such a postponement, says sports economist Andrew Zimbalist, “NBC and the other networks around the world are gonna say, ‘No, no, no, we don’t want you to do that.’ ”

Depending on how the virus develops, there are countless in-between solutions or countermeasures that could allow the Games to happen on schedule. “Another option would be a restricted event,” Sidney Levy, CEO of the Rio 2016 organizing committee, wrote in an email to Yahoo Sports. “With athletes and media, around 40,000 people, in a highly controlled environment with mandatory quarantine for all those people.” Such a plan would surrender nine- or 10-figure sums in ticket revenue. But an Olympics without fans, like many other unappetizing alternatives, would be better than no Olympics at all.

Another possibility is a longer postponement, by a full year, to the exact same July-August window in 2021.

Would postponement to summer 2021 be feasible?

Flash back eight years, to the 2012 Olympics that Bulley and his colleagues oversaw. Imagine unforeseen circumstances forced a postponement. Could those Games have been pushed back 12 months, to the summer of 2013?

“Wow, there’s a question,” Bulley says with a laugh.

“Look, when you’re preparing for the Games, there are so many dimensions to it. Obviously, athletes and athlete training. … There’s [33] different sports, all of which have a cycle of events that take place through a number of years. There’ll be other world championships, other continental championships, and so on, that would be affected if you tried to delay [the Olympics] a year. So that’s a major issue.

“Then there’s the venues. You have use agreements in place with all of the venues. Some of these might be convention centers, exhibition centers. They might be arenas, and so on, which will have other events already booked for the following year. So you have a number of issues relating to that.

“You then have the broadcasters, they’re all geared up. Twenty-thousand of the world’s media, broadcasters and press, accredited for the Olympic Games. They’re going to all have their schedules ready and prepared. The cost of all of that, the logistics, flights and accommodations all booked — there are major, major implications to just putting it into the following year.

“I’m not saying it’s not feasible. I’m saying there are a number of challenges.”

But he acknowledges it would be a consideration. Because, as Matheson says: “It would be a gigantic logistical nightmare, but it would certainly be better than spending $25 billion in preparation for an event that doesn’t happen at all.”

A man wearing a mask takes part in a protest against the holding of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo under the state of nuclear emergency, in front of the International Olympic Games (IOC) in Lausanne, Switzerland. (Reuters)
A man wearing a mask takes part in a protest against the holding of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo under the state of nuclear emergency, in front of the International Olympic Games (IOC) in Lausanne, Switzerland. (Reuters)

In Pound’s interview with the AP, he seemed to suggest that cancellation was more likely than postponement. But now, speaking with Yahoo Sports, when asked if all the logistical hurdles associated with a move to 2021 could be hurdled, he says: “Certainly some of them can. The ones in control of the IOC, the world sports schedule and so on, yeah, you could make those adjustments.”

The issue, Pound says, is “your sponsors and broadcasters, and the forward commitments of hotels, and the Olympic Village, and all that sort of stuff. You’d have to sit down with the Tokyo organizers and say, ‘Listen, can you hold all this together for a year if necessary?’ And that you simply don’t know.”

Tokyo 2021, however, seems like the best option if Tokyo 2020 can’t happen. “Moving it to another city doesn’t make a lot of sense at all,” Zimbalist says. “Moving it to October doesn’t make sense. But moving it to 2021 is doable.”

Says Levy, the Rio 2016 CEO: “One-year postponement would bring enormous problems and costs, but it is feasible.”

And Matheson: “I cannot imagine the IOC not postponing it to 2021. There is no excuse just to throw in the towel completely.” A postponement would be problematic, he assures. “But at least you get the Games in.”

Fallout from a potential Olympics cancellation

A one-year postponement, the economists say, would cost organizers another nine figures. The exact calculations are complex. Interest rates and re-marketing efforts and the nixing of previously scheduled 2021 events would factor in.

But when you’ve already spent tens of billions, and when the alternative — cancellation — would see billions in revenue forfeited, you can probably stomach the additional costs.

In the case of postponement, Zimbalist says, those costs are “a drop in the bucket.”

The ramifications of a cancellation, on the other hand, would be massive.

The vast majority of the $25 billion, the economists say, has already been spent — by the government, on stadiums and hotels and other infrastructure. “The lion’s share of that is stuff they wouldn’t have done without the Olympics coming,” Zimbalist says of Tokyo. “Arguably some of it has some long-run value. But it would’ve been relatively low priority in terms of the different public infrastructure needs that the city has.”

And for that $25 billion investment, Tokyo would get zero money from ticket sales. The city wouldn’t get its share of TV and sponsorship revenue. Perhaps more importantly, it would reap none of the political, symbolic or intangible benefits associated with hosting the Olympics. Some of the public projects would be of long-term use. Most wouldn’t. A majority of that $25 billion would swirl down the drain.

The IOC, by comparison, is sheltered from risk. Its main financial loss would be in TV revenue. Olympic broadcasting contracts, Zimbalist says, “have a make-good provision that would enable the television networks to get compensated for any losses” — meaning NBC would not be on the hook for $1.1 billion if the Games it paid $1.1 billion for never happen. (NBC responded to a question about stipulations in its contract with a statement that did not address the question.)

Plus, says Zimbalist: “The problem, I think, for the IOC here, is reputational. It’s optics. And it’s not gonna look good. Because now, on top of everything else, prospective hosts are not only gonna have to worry about the financial ramifications of hosting, and the political and security ramifications, but they’re gonna have to worry about the possibility of natural interference.”

And yet the real cost of a cancellation would have little to do with 11-figure sums or the IOC. It’d be the human cost, the thousands of athletes who spend three years and 11 months pouring their dollars and sweat into preparing for the Olympics.

Many of them, for now, according to USOPC Athletes’ Advisory Council chairman Han Xiao, remain primarily concerned with the coronavirus’ effect on their qualification events. But the prospect of a cancellation?

“Of course, it’s definitely on my mind,” gold medal-winning Swedish swimmer Sarah Sjöström told the AP on Wednesday. “We are reminded about it every day. I read the news. It’s a bit scary.”

“I really can’t even imagine having the Olympics canceled,” gold medal-winning Hungarian swimmer Katinka Hosszú told the AP. “For athletes, it’s a nightmare. That’s our life.”

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