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Tokyo Olympics could cancel or postpone, but all options have problems



A cancellation is the least desirable option, and staging a Summer Games with no spectators seems increasingly impractical. That makes a postponement, by either a few months or even a full year, the most likely scenario if efforts to contain the spread of the coronavirus don’t show signs of progress soon — but even that is rife with complications.

“This is all frightening new territory for the IOC,” said Ed Hula, editor and founder of Around the Rings, who has been covering the Olympic movement and the business of the Games for nearly three decades.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has said the Tokyo Games will proceed as scheduled, and he has no immediate plans to declare a state of emergency. But many in Japan have their doubts. A poll released Monday by Kyodo News found that seven in 10 people there do not expect the Olympics to take place this summer as planned.

On Tuesday, Kozo Tashima, deputy chief of the Japan Olympic Committee and head of the Japan Football Association, said in a statement that he had tested positive for the coronavirus. Tashima had been traveling for business since Feb. 28, to Belfast, Amsterdam and the United States. He returned to Japan on March 8.

Olympic officials and the international sports federations responsible for staging the events in Tokyo have been in constant contact with the World Health Organization.

“It is not the role of WHO to call off or not call off any type of events,” WHO spokesman Tarik Jasarevic said Monday. “As each international mass gathering is different, the factors to consider when determining if the event should be canceled may also differ. Any decision to change a planned international gathering should be based on a careful assessment of the risks and how they can be managed, and the level of event planning.”

While Dick Pound, a longtime IOC member, told the Associated Press last month that a decision probably would have to be made by the end of May, another IOC official said this week there is no deadline facing the organization.

“The IOC didn’t recognize any dates that Dick came up with, and I think Dick backed off that as well,” John Coates, head of the IOC’s coordination commission for the Tokyo Olympics, told the Sydney Morning Herald on Monday. “It’s all proceeding to start on the 24th of July.”

The considerations posed by any changes to the Olympic schedule largely fall into four categories: personnel and staffing; venues; equipment and infrastructure; and contracts and scheduling. Those familiar with the details of staging a Summer Games say all the possibilities present pros and cons, and each likely will cost money that’s not currently budgeted, will prompt major disruptions and surely will upset some athletes, sports, nations, broadcasters and Olympic partners.

No spectators: Risk without reward

While many leagues and major sporting events halted operations last week, those mostly covered games and tournaments that were scheduled for the next several weeks, the Masters and the NCAA basketball tournaments among the most notable. But other summer events remain scheduled and have made no indications they are close to canceling or suspending plans, including the British Open, Wimbledon and the Tour de France.

The uncertainty surrounding the virus means public health officials can’t predict what the landscape will look like in the warm summer months, which has given event organizers, such as the IOC, trepidation to race into a decision right now.

The chance of an athlete carrying the virus into the Olympic Village or anyone contracting the disease in Tokyo and taking it back home could prove too risky. The health and safety of everyone associated with the Games will be a priority and, like much of the world, Japan has been going to great lengths to slow the spread of the virus.

Neal Pilson, who helped negotiate broadcast rights for three Olympic Games while he was the head of CBS Sports, said the possibility of staging the Tokyo Games without fans or spectators might no longer be viable.

“I think the recent decisions by the NBA, hockey, the NCAA has put an end of that as an option,” he said. “You say, ‘All right, we won’t risk audience, but we will risk the athletes.’ You can’t say we’ll play without an attendance because we don’t want to risk the fans, without saying it’s okay to risk 40-50,000 athletes and technicians and staff. So that’s not going to happen. That option is off the table.”

There have been 1,500 infections so far in Japan, and most schools were shuttered this month in hopes of stopping the spread. Hideomi Nakahara, a visiting professor at the Yamano College of Aesthetics specializing in infectious diseases, said even if the virus seems contained in Japan by May, there are still challenges to staging an Olympics less than three months later.

“This is not a domestic event,” Nakahara said. “Athletes from around the world have got to be able to participate. This is a condition that’s got to be absolutely met. … If the contagion was spreading in just one country or two, that might make it feasible. But that’s not the case given what we are seeing today.”

Japan has been banking on a tourist boom to breathe life into its economy, and as many as 2 million visitors were expected for the Games alone. Hotels have invested in renovations and are heavily booked, Japan Airlines had been expected to launch a low-cost subsidiary, Zipair Tokyo, at a cost of around $200 million in May, and Tokyo’s Narita and Haneda airports have invested heavily to boost capacity.

Among spectators, enthusiasm has been without precedent. Japan has sold 4.48 million tickets for the Olympics (not including the Paralympics) to residents of Japan after receiving 80 million requests for tickets from 8.2 million people. That leaves a lot of disappointed taxpayers and voters, and SMBC Nikko securities estimated Japan would lose around $1 billion in ticket sales if spectators were banned.

Cancellation: A waste

In 2013, the city of Tokyo signed an 81-page “Host City Contract” with the IOC and the Japanese Olympic Committee. The contract allows the IOC to cancel for a variety of reasons, including war, boycotts or if “the safety of participants in the Games would be seriously threatened or jeopardized for any reason whatsoever.”

According to the contract, the IOC is required to give at least 60 days’ notice to cancel, and Japan’s Olympics minister, Seiko Hashimoto, told lawmakers in early March the contract gave Japanese organizers leeway to postpone the Tokyo Games but only if they were held by the end of 2020. Anything beyond that probably would require a new or amended “Host City Contract.”

One veteran sports executive who has worked on planning several Olympics said much of the public posturing right now could be related to that contract and all of the insurance implications.

“The game that’s being played out in Tokyo — both on the IOC side and on the Tokyo side — is who’s going to blink first,” said the executive, who still works in many corners of the sprawling Olympics universe and requested anonymity to speak candidly. “This is a game of chicken. It’s a game of chicken because they each probably have different insurers, and Games cancellation insurers, you’ve never really had to pull that rip cord. And in order to pull that rip cord, you’ve got to be able to demonstrate to your insurer that you did everything possible to make sure those Games were to happen.”

Speaking at an investor conference this month, Brian Roberts, the chairman and chief executive of Comcast, NBC’s parent company, said: “We anticipate these kinds of things in big contract language. We try to anticipate for big events what might happen so that we’re protected there, and we also have insurance for any expenses we make. So there should be no losses should there not be an Olympics.”

Feelings might continue to be mixed in some corners until a decision is ultimately made. Munehiko Harada, a professor of sports sciences at Waseda University, said: “If we postpone the Olympics or abandon the Olympic Games we lose so many things, unbelievably many things, including money, effort, jobs. The show must go on.

“Everything is on schedule; it’s impossible to stop at this stage.”

Postponement: Complicated

The most likely scenario also might be the most challenging: Postponing the Games for any amount of time will be costly and complicated.

Staging an Olympics is a mammoth undertaking. These Summer Games were expected to carry a price tag of $12.6 billion — though the Board of Audit, a body established to review government expenditures, estimated Japan actually would spend more than $25 billion related to the Games.

The Olympics encompasses 33 competition venues, 11 of them built for these Games. The IOC and the Tokyo 2020 committee don’t own all of these facilities, typically leasing them for a specific use and time period. Some have other tenants and plans lined up beyond the Games.

The Olympics media operation will be headquartered at the Tokyo Big Sight, which serves as the city’s major convention space. Delaying the Games means an important Tokyo facility would be unavailable indefinitely. The city-owned venue normally hosts 300 exhibitions every year.

At the conclusion of the Games, the Olympic Village is expected to be converted into more than 5,600 condominiums, housing 12,000 people. Real estate companies have listed 940 units for sale thus far and have received more than 2,200 applications, with some apartments already sold, said Mika Kiyomoto, spokeswoman for Mitsui Fudosan, one of 10 developers of the project.

Asked what options buyers who have purchased a property would have in case of a postponement or cancellation of the Games, Kiyomoto declined to comment, citing the confidentiality of individual contracts.

The Tokyo organizing committee also long ago blocked out 45,000 hotel rooms for this summer and might have to scramble to secure similar accommodations for another date. There’s also the matter of all the equipment required to stage an Olympics, enough to build an entire makeshift town all its own.

“A lot of the Games is a rental,” the veteran sports executive said. “You rent it for a period of time that is going on someplace else.”

This includes tents, trailers, generators, buses and many other high-priced items that are supposed to be packaged and shipped elsewhere in August.

There’s also the matter of personnel. The Japanese will rely on some 80,000 volunteers to help stage these Olympics, people who put their jobs on hold and long ago made plans to be available this summer. Similarly, thousands more have been hired or transferred from local governments to help stage the Olympics, a budgeted expense that’s supposed to expire following the conclusion of the Summer Games.

As for the athletes who train for years to peak over a specific three-week period in the summer, any postponement would prompt major adjustments. Hula, a veteran of 12 Olympic Games, points out that a September or October Olympics also would look and feel much different from a midsummer showcase. Cooler weather might be an advantage for spectators and some outdoor sports, but other sports might have a difficult time staging their events. Surfing, for example, as well as golf, tennis, baseball, softball and basketball would have to grapple with less-than-ideal conditions or major scheduling conflicts.

“You’ve got 33 sports to deal with in Tokyo,” Hula said. “They’re all going to have to make adjustments, see who fits and who doesn’t.”

The power of television

While the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee could decide the Olympics shouldn’t take place as scheduled, the IOC has the ultimate call on whether to postpone or cancel. It surely will have heavy input from some partners, particularly NBC. The IOC, a nonprofit organization, brought in more than $5 billion during the most recent four-year Olympic cycle, nearly three-quarters of which came from broadcast rights. NBC contributes about half of that, and thus carries a lot of sway.

Postponing by a few months is not an ideal scenario for the network, which has other programming lined up for the fall and wouldn’t be eager to fill the giant hole left on the summer schedule.

“That puts the Olympic Games in direct conflict with NFL,” Pilson said. “NBC has a serious commitment to the NFL on Sunday nights and you have college football on Saturdays, so you’re not going to get the type of ratings that you get during the summer. And it really changes the economics of the deal.

NBC said this month it has sold nearly 90 percent of its advertising inventory, totaling a record $1.25 billion. Pilson explained that, in the event of a postponement, the ad rates NBC sold for the Tokyo Games would not be applicable, and its agreements with the IOC and its advertisers would have to be renegotiated.

“That’s not what they bought,” Pilson said, “so you can’t simply flip the advertisers into a different time of year and not negotiate adjustments with them.”

A spokesman for NBC said Monday, “The safety of our employees is always our top priority, but there is no impact on our preparations at this time.”

While postponing a full year could alter international schedules and Olympic qualifying, it also would stretch some IOC resources, as they would be just a year out from the Beijing Winter Olympics in 2022. And postponing the Tokyo Games two full years would see the Summer Olympics in the same cycle as the Winter Games, which is how the Olympics were held until 1994.

Even if the IOC is weeks from any public announcements about a possible postponement or cancellation, sorting through the logistics will require difficult conversations for all the stakeholders, prioritizing health and safety while wrestling with the realities of economics and scheduling.

“There’s nothing good here,” Pilson said. “You’re talking about a series of bad choices. Which is the least bad?”

Denyer reported from Tokyo. Akiko Kashiwagi contributed to this report.

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