Postponing Games due to coronavirus is not an easy option, official says.

The coronavirus has spread rapidly since its 2019 inception in Wuhan, China, with cases currently confirmed in 45 territories. Japan has seen the fifth most, with 172 cases and 2 confirmed COVID-19 deaths, leading to an increased demand for face masks and increased paranoia and xenophobia around foreigners, particularly tourists.

Japan has a uniquely complicated scenario, as the country is currently preparing for a huge influx of foreign athletes and and even huger influx of tourists coming to watch them compete in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which are scheduled to start on July 24. That’s now less than five months away, and fears about the widespread COVID-19 virus are starting to cause doubts the Olympic Games will even go ahead at all.

Dick Pound, who competed in the 1960 Summer Olympics, is the longest-serving member on the International Olympics Committee. In an interview with the Associated Press, Pound explained how preparations for the Olympics become increasingly intense as the scheduled opening date gets closer. “You’ve got to start ramping up your security, your food, the Olympic Village, the hotels. The media folks will be in there building their studios.”

However, should coronavirus-related concerns and delays make the Tokyo Olympics will be unable to meet their scheduled start date, Pound told the AP that “you’re probably looking at a cancellation,” not a postponement or rescheduling.

Pound says that a global-scale operation like the Olympics operates in a very tight “bubble”. All manner of global sports stations write up tight agreements about Olympic coverage so they can dedicate time-slots to each event; rescheduling the games even by a few months would throw off this delicate balance. He cited North American broadcasting companies in particular as an issue, as their fall schedules are packed to the brim with basketball, hockey, professional and college football, and so on. This, plus inherent problems with shifting the event to other, lesser-equipped venues in other countries, means that Pound sees cancellation as the only realistic response if Tokyo can’t meet the July 24 opening date, and the committee will have to decide whether or not to do so by the end of May at the latest.

However, Pound stresses that athletes should presume for now that the games will go ahead as planned, telling the AP “As far as we all know, you’re going to be in Tokyo. All indications are at this stage that it will be business as usual. So keep focused on your sport and be sure that the IOC is not going to send you into a pandemic situation.” He also sounded much more optimistic when speaking to the BBC, saying “We have to think of alternatives. Could you still hold them this year? We would speak with the Japanese government to ask them if this ‘bubble’ can be held in place.”

Within Japan, online reactions have mainly been focusing on the worst-case cancellation scenario. Many see Pound’s comment as a confirmation that the Olympics is decided at the whims of the American media, regardless of the hosting country’s wishes; one cynically called the Olympics itself as an “American organization”. Others wondered whether or not postponing the Games by one year would offset these problems (Pound was doubtful in his original interview, citing the huge budget that Japan had already put aside for this year).

One commenter summed the general opinion up neatly:

“Wow, so it all really does come down to money.”

While the Olympic Games have been cancelled before, such cases were due to ongoing wars. The first time for the Olympic Games to take place in Tokyo was supposed to be in summer of 1940, for example but were cancelled because of World War II. No modern Olympic Games have ever been cancelled for health reasons, not even 2016’s Summer Olympics Games in Rio de Janeiro, which proceeded as planned, despite concerns over the Zika virus epidemic. This is an especially fraught time when Japan could use the boost of international solidarity that the Olympic Games can bring, but let’s hope it doesn’t come at the cost of public health safety.

Source: Associated Press via Hachima Kiko, BBC
Top image: Wikimedia Commons/Maythee Anegboonlap

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