What Tokyo Taught Us: Organizing the First-Ever Postponed Olympics

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Today’s guest columnist is Christophe Dubi, Olympic Games executive director at the International Olympic Committee.

When the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games were postponed by a year as a consequence of the COVID-19 pandemic, Dubi worked on perhaps the biggest change-management case study in history. One year on, he reflects on the lessons learned.

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In March 2020 the world and the global economy were shutting down amid a hail of unanswered questions. Among the important but certainly not dire: Should the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games go on? The query initiated an intense debate among a leadership group that included top Olympic officials and Japanese politicians and organizers that resulted in the decision to postpone the Games, for the first time in history, by up to a year.

That led to the next question: How do you organize postponed Olympic Games in the midst of a global pandemic?

There was simply no blueprint, and it took an extraordinary combined effort from everyone involved—athletes, National Olympic Committees, broadcasters, commercial partners and the Japanese organizers. The moment that truly brought this home came on July 29, six days after the Opening Ceremony. We were waiting for the latest daily update on COVID-19 cases at the Olympic Village. If  our COVID countermeasures were holding, we knew the cases would start to decline from that day. If not, it would indicate transmission inside the “bubble”—a major threat to the Games. The numbers reported that day vindicated a painstaking planning process that had been subject to constant iteration under the guidance of the World Health Organization and other international bodies.

If the moment was celebratory, it was fleeting. As organizers, you know that the start of an event only marks the end of planning. Here’s what else we took away from a totally unprecedented 16 months:

People and Companies Rally Around the Olympic Games
Even if we knew it before, it was never truer than in this unprecedented context. We saw it in the immediate response of the international community—the United Nations, G7 and G20. Those organizations consistently included messages of support for the staging of the Games in their communiques and resolutions. In the first four months after the postponement, thousands of contracts—with staff, vendors, partners, suppliers, broadcasters, etc.—had to be reissued and re-signed. The support and collaboration that we received from them were simply incredible. Such unity of purpose is a powerful force.

A Culture of Confidence Is Crucial
During those first days after the postponement, we were faced with hundreds of problems. We had to face those challenges with the strong belief that we could overcome them together. Under the leadership of IOC coordination commissioner chair John Coates, we focused on organizing workflows into logical chunks and reorganizing processes. With our partners, we identified four key phases: securing the basics; finding efficiencies to soften the financial impact of the postponement; establishing COVID-19 countermeasures; and making final operational preparations.

In Crisis, Leadership Is Making Tough Decisions
Strong decisions, especially when they are taken in challenging circumstances, inspire trust and a spirit of collaboration all the way through the ecosystem. This “stronger together” spirit was essential to our success, as was Japan’s commitment to and vision for the Games.

Communication Is an Act of Management
Projects such as ours demand the highest transparency and a constant cadence of communication and engagement across all audiences. If you don’t constantly explain what you are doing, how you are addressing issues and the public benefits of the project, you can get into serious trouble.

Constraint Allows You to Prioritize Your True Needs
In Tokyo, we had to be forensic in our search for efficiencies. We learned that, when you have to find ways and means to make things simpler, you can. Before COVID-19 hit, together we had already found $4.3 billion in savings by, for example, reducing the number of new venues to be built, using more permanent facilities and optimizing temporary structures. We then achieved an additional $280 million in optimizations and simplifications following the postponement, by reviewing specifications for equipment, adapting service levels and visual identity branding at venues, deploying the torch relay resources more effectively, and encouraging stakeholders and the organizing committee to optimize their delegations and staffing plans. Through these joint efforts to improve efficiency, even after the unexpected additional costs caused by the postponement and the COVID-19 countermeasures, the Tokyo 2020 Games were delivered with final expenditures of $13 billion (1,423.8 billion yen), some $700 million less than the version one budget announced in December 2016.

All of these lessons will be beneficial for future Games. One year on, that is quite a result for totally unprecedented Games that inspired the world and brought hope, joy and light in the most challenging of times.

Dubi, a Swiss-born economist, has built a 26-year career in sports management at the IOC.

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