As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to disrupt the normalcy of life around the globe, politicians and athletes are beginning to question if it is feasible to stage this summer’s Olympic and Paralympic games in Tokyo, Japan.
With some calling for a full cancellation to prevent potential spread of the virus, and rumours persisting that a cancellation is imminent, Brock University Assistant Professor of Sport Management Michael Naraine says there are many additional factors that must be considered.
“I’m not surprised to hear the news coming out of Tokyo,” he says. “Politicians at the local levels there are certainly concerned with the spread of the virus in the country, as well as the extra funds required to put on the event in a safe manner.”
In spite of concerns from within Japan, Naraine says the decision on whether the games take place will likely come from beyond the country’s borders.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is in the driver’s seat here,” he says. “If Tokyo tries to back out of their contractual obligation, the IOC is going to sue the Tokyo Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (TOCOG).”
Naraine says the IOC’s push to keep the games on schedule this summer in spite of health concerns is based on financial worries from sponsors and within the IOC itself.
“There are two key drivers here for the IOC,” he says. “They are strongly beholden to their corporate overlords. Toyota, Visa, Samsung, Proctor and Gamble and more have invested millions into activation and rights fees, and major broadcasters like NBC are on the hook for billions. Second, there’s a time crunch. If the IOC delays until 2022, that means they will have two Games in one year, which hasn’t been the case since 1992. This will create a lack of value spread out for their sponsor and media partners, so the IOC is going to be all in, until the very last second.”
Though the IOC is pushing to keep things on schedule, Naraine believes they are also likely considering smaller changes to the Games that would allow them to continue this summer.
“I think one Plan B the IOC isn’t saying out loud is a split joint event like the Canada Games, where half of the athletes compete and then leave, and then Round 2 begins with the new set of athletes,” he says. “With the athletes’ village having very tight living quarters, that’s the only way physical distancing measures can exist at the Games.”
To emphasize his point, Naraine says recent international sporting events, which the IOC may have looked to draw upon, have not provided encouraging results.
“With what we’ve just seen with the Australian Open tennis tournament, it’s unlikely a simple 14-day quarantine will work and, without the IOC being too xenophobic or othering, they are worried about athletes from less-developed nations with poor health-care standards.”
Assistant Professor of Sport Management Michele Donnelly expressed similar concerns about the inequitable treatment of athletes, which she says could be particularly negative for women.
“I already had some serious questions about how truly gender equitable the Games would be, and I think that this will exacerbate those concerns,” she says. “For example, money spent on women’s sport is already less than that spent on men’s sport. With so many countries experiencing serious economic effects of the pandemic, that is likely to continue, if not worsen.”
With the Olympics possibly drawing on the example of other professional sports, Donnelly says pressing on with the original date could cause more damage than good.
“I do have some colleagues who see opportunity in the current happenings in sport, but I do not agree,” she says. “I think the status quo is very likely to be maintained in an effort to keep sport viable. It is interesting to see women’s sport entities being most responsible about pandemic conditions, such as the women’s hockey season that is about to start in a bubble in Lake Placid.”
Based on those concerns, Donnelly believes the Olympics should not take place this summer.
“This would be a good decision for the people of Japan and for the thousands of athletes who are expected to travel to the Games (as well as the countries they will return to),” she says.