Japan’s Minister for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, Seiko Hashimoto, said on Wednesday, February 26, that the International Olympic Committee (IOC) gave assurances they were “preparing as planned towards the opening of the Olympics and Paralympic Games.”
She was responding to a question about an interview given to the Associated Press (AP) by Dick Pound, the longest-serving member of the IOC, where he said organizers would be more likely to cancel the 2020 Tokyo Games than to postpone or move them in the event the coronavirus crisis worsens.
“When I asked the IOC for an explanation, I was told that it (the AP interview) wasn’t the opinion of the IOC as a whole, and that IOC was preparing as planned,” Hashimoto said at the Lower House.
“I think envisioning the worst case scenario is a key aspect to success. We are working hard so that the IOC can recognize that the Tokyo Olympics can be held with full confidence,” she added.
Pound, a former Olympic swimmer from Canada who as been part of the IOC since 1978, said the decision on whether or not the Olympics should push through could be put off until late May.
“In and around that time, I’d say folks are going to have to ask: ‘Is this under sufficient control that we can be confident about going to Tokyo, or not?’” he said.
Pound stressed that the IOC has not decided anything yet, but that if they should decide, “You are likely looking at a cancellation.”
The news came as confirmed cases reached more than 80,000 and deaths reported were at more than 2,700 deaths around the world. Since mid-February, numerous other epicenters have developed in Italy, South Korea, and Iran.
Japan is the second worst hit country after China, if you include the number of cases on the Diamond Princess cruise ship which is being quarantined at Yokohama Bay there are 894 cases, with 189 confirmed cases inland.
Putting the Risk Into Context
The Olympics as we know them started in 1896, and have only been cancelled during wartime: in 1916, 1940, and 1944. The 1940 games were supposed to be held in Tokyo but got cancelled due to Japan’s war with China in World War II. There have also been six boycotts of the games.
If the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics are canceled, it would be the first time such is done due to a health crisis.
Pound explained that, due to practical constraints, it was unlikely that the Olympics could be postponed: “You just don’t postpone something on the size and scale of the Olympics. There are so many moving parts, so many countries and different seasons, and competitive seasons, and television seasons. You can’t just say, ‘We’ll do it in October.’”
He argued this was particularly true due to the media coverage. North American television, for example, is fully booked in the fall for the NFL American football season and Major League Baseball playoffs. In Europe, it’s the early months of football season, creating conflicts there as well.
“It would be tough to get the kind of blanket coverage that people expect around the Olympics Games,” he said.
What’s At Stake for the IOC
Among the rumors which have been spreading is one that suggests the Olympics to be moved elsewhere, as London Mayor Shaun Bailey suggested the games be held in her city instead. Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike accused Bailey of using the coronavirus crisis for political leverage, and said the Tokyo Olympics would be business as usual.
Affirming Koike’s comment, Pound said he thought it was unlikely that the Olympics would be moved elsewhere due to practical constraints. Moreover, it wouldn’t “constitute an Olympic Games. You’d end up with a series of world championships,” he said.
Some commentators have made comparisons to the Spanish flu, which killed millions at the beginning of the 20th century. The hope is that the availability of medical advances and new technology will allow the coronavirus epidemic to be contained sooner.
The IOC itself stands to lose should the Olympics be cancelled, as 73% of the IOC’s income comes from broadcast rights. To address this risk, the IOC has been building an emergency fund reported to be about $1 billion USD to soften the blow.
But, Pound reiterated, all of that would have to be decided, depending on how the virus spreads. He concluded, “If it gets to be something like the Spanish flu...then everybody’s got to take their medicine.”
The Japanese Response
Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga, in the regular morning press conference on February 26, was reassuring, saying that preparations for the torch relay, which is set to start on March 26, are continuing as planned.
“The government is working closely with the IOC and the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee to allow spread of information overseas about measures against the novel coronavirus, and to ensure a smooth preparation in the leadup to the opening of the games,” he said.
Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said Pound was “perhaps just voicing concerns.”
In her press conference on February 26, she said: “As a local government, we are proceeding with the preparations. The WHO (World Health Organization) is saying there are signs that the virus is spreading worldwide. However, at the same time, it’s crucial for the success of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics to take measures and concentrate on preparations before it’s too late.”
Author: JAPAN Forward