Mystery Solved: Why the 2021 Olympics are still called the ‘Tokyo 2020’ Olympics

TOKYO — On Friday, July 23, 2021, the Olympics will begin with reference after reference to a year that is, well, not 2021.

In fact, throughout Tokyo, “2020” is everywhere. It’s on airport signs and road signs and flags, on uniforms and photographer bibs and lanyards, on taxis and Games-related vehicles and more. Even the WiFi network on an Olympics shuttle bus is named “Sushi2020.”

Because the 2021 Olympics are, officially, the 2020 Olympics. But why?

The answer, of course, stems from the postponement of the Games last March, from 2020 to 2021, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. At the time, organizers “agreed that the Games will keep the name Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.”

And that decision, for the most part, was a commercial decision.

“There are many reasons,” a Tokyo organizing committee source told Yahoo Sports. One of them, he said, was that “last year in March, torches, medals, other branding items, and merchandise were already being made using the name ‘Tokyo 2020’ and a name change would have meant additional costs.”

Maintaining the ‘Tokyo 2020’ brand

In other words, Olympic organizers had already committed millions upon millions of dollars to the "Tokyo 2020" brand. They were ready to sell physical representations of it — t-shirts, flags, mascot stuffed animals, souvenirs of all kinds. They were also ready to sell it intangibly, backed by full-fledged marketing campaigns developed over multiple years.

National Stadium, where the opening and closing ceremonies for the Olympics will be held, is branded with
National Stadium, where the opening and closing ceremonies for the Olympics will be held, is branded with "Tokyo 2020" like everywhere else. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

“The primary asset the IOC and Tokyo Organizing Committee sells is its intellectual property and the corresponding brand equity associated with the marks, logos, designations, symbols, etc.,” explained Michael Lynch, a veteran sports marketer who formerly managed Visa’s sponsorship of the Games. “All that Olympic IP is branded 2020, including IOC and [organizing committee] creative, sponsor creative, advertising creative, promotional creative, licensed merchandise, tickets, on-site signage, events, you name it, all about to hit the market. It would be an enormous and unnecessary expense for all of this Olympic IP to be changed.”

And as Lynch mentioned, the expense wouldn’t just hit organizers. It would hit their broadcast partners, their sponsors, anybody with a brand strategy related to the Olympics.

Some of them have developed creative rebrands, with logos that dub these the “202One Olympics,” or that shape the inside of the second zero in “2020” as a “1.”

(USA Swimming)
(USA Swimming)

But the official branding remained “Tokyo 2020,” as it has been ever since the IOC awarded these Games to the Japanese capital way back on Sept. 7, 2013. Most Games stakeholders welcomed the decision to stick with the original name.

Millions of dollars in merch goes to waste

At the time of the decision, however, organizers hoped that 2021 would bring normalcy. That fans from around the globe would still travel to Tokyo to celebrate the resilience of humankind — and to buy merch. Lots of it. Everything from clothing to chopsticks to umbrellas with the official “Tokyo 2020” marks.

It had the potential to generate some $100 million, and much of it had already been manufactured. So organizers and licensed retailers stashed it away in warehouses, hoping it would fly off shelves come summer 2021.

Instead, they face massive losses because no fans will attend the Games at all. No tourists will descend on Tokyo. No locals will mill about outside stadiums and arenas, in bustling downtown areas and by Tokyo Bay. Many of the dozens of official merchandise shops throughout the host city have either closed or welcomed very few visitors. This aspect of the “Tokyo 2020” strategy has been undone by the virus.

There was once a thought among some experts that the uniqueness of these Games, the first ever postponed, would make all that merchandise sellable as valuable collectors items. But the Olympics became so unpopular in Japan, and so fraught with controversy, that the brand likely has become irreversibly tarnished. Toyota recently pulled all its Japanese TV advertisements related to the Games.

Still, though, long before COVID, thousands of volunteer shirts and banners and other non-retail items were designed and made as if the 2020 Olympics were going to happen in 2020. And so they are, despite what calendars might tell you, still the 2020 Olympics.

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