The Coronavirus and the Olympics
Tuesday, March 24, 2020
What is the fate of Tokyo 2020?
Last month the whole world watched as Japan clumsily stumbled through the 2 week quarantine of the Diamond Princess cruise ship that docked in Yokohama port on February 3rd. Global media scrutinised and criticised Japan’s inability to make swift and effective decisions to contain the spread of the disease on the ship that ultimately resulted in 712 cases and 8 deaths as of March 23. But through all the backlash Japan’s main focus was set on July 24, the start of the Olympic games.
As the number of patients on the cruise ship rose in early February, the WHO statistics showed that Japan was second to China in the number of COVID-19 cases. Fearing the implications of negative PR during the Olympic year, the Japanese government petitioned the WHO to create a separate category for the Diamond Princess since the cruise ship, “happened to be in Japan, but technically could have been anywhere else.”
Fast forward one month and the Ministry of Health Labor and Welfare just announced that it had completed all the follow ups on the cruise ship passengers both domestically and abroad. But this news was barely a footnote in international news as the chaos of COVID-19 descends upon the globe.
The Fate of the Olympics
In the past month, the number of COVID-19 cases has gone from about 80,000 to about 380,000 at present. The exponential increase shown in the chart has shifted the world’s focus not just onto the stresses on medical systems but the grave economic impact this virus has caused worldwide.
But still, Japan didn’t waver from its focus on July 24th. Abe announced on March 14th the that games will go on as scheduled and after a cabinet meeting on the 17th Olympic Minister Seiko Hashimoto announced that the event will go on as planned with an audience. However, within a week the number of infected patients worldwide jumped from 200,000 to over 300,000, Italy and Spain went into lockdown, Trump declared a state of emergency and UK has ordered pubs and restaurants to shut down to fight the virus.
The rapid ballooning of the pandemic made Canada announce that it will not send athletes to the Olympic games if it were to be held this summer, they were the first country to make such an announcement and Australia quickly followed with the same announcement. This as the International Olympic Committee (IOC) simultaneously announced that it would step up scenario planning to ensure the health and safety of all those involved in the event, including exploring the option of changing the start date and they were “confident” the could finalise the decision about the Olympics within the next four weeks. They also made it clear that cancellation of the games was not an option.
So with all the authorities having spoken and the virus showing no signs of slowing down in the next few weeks, what actually is the likely scenario for Tokyo 2020? Let's break it down.
The stars of the event and the reason for the Olympics’ existence are the athletes. For us laymen, the Olympics starts in July and ends in August, but for the athletes it is about a lifetime of training. The athlete’s training schedules are meticulously planned so that they can perform at their best in order to first qualify for the games and then be at peak performance during the Olympics. But because of COVID-19 qualifying matches for sports like fencing, climbing, and judo have been cancelled or postponed and the IOC Boxing Task force has suspended the European qualifier until May. Which leads to the pressing question of who will actually get to compete at the Olympics if it starts on schedule. If the traditional routes to qualify are closed temporarily or even permanently, that could mean a lifetime of work that never comes to fruition.
With public spaces closed and people being encouraged to stay home all over the world, even maintaining training schedules is an arduous task. British sprinter Dina Asher-Smith took to Twitter expressing frustration about the IOC’s announcement to wait another 4 weeks to decided the fate of Tokyo 2020, “So wait... does this mean that athletes face up to another FOUR weeks of finding ways to fit in training?” she tweeted. It seems likely that should the games take place as scheduled, not all the athletes that participate will have qualified in the standard way (i.e. secured their place by completing at a pre-olympic event), which in some senses defeats the fundamental spirit of the Olympics.
Doomsday scenarios are circulating for the economic impact on Japan if the games are postponed or cancelled. One professor at Kansai University estimates that the economic cost for postponing the Olympics will be ¥640 billion (5.8 Billion USD) and if the event is cancelled entirely the economic impact would be over ¥4.5 Trillion (40 Billion USD), thus shrinking Japan’s GDP by 1.4 percent. Abe, who is supposed to step down from office in September of next year wanted to round off is legacy with the extravaganza that is the Olympics and the added boost to the Japanese economy, but his hopes are likely wearing thin.
It's not just Japan, broadcast networks and sponsors have also invested billions. NBC announced a record sale of $1.25 billion in advertising for Tokyo 2020, another $3 billion was generated through domestic sponsorship programs and this did not included the top tier sponsors like Toyota, Panasonic and Samsung who all have separate premium deals with the IOC.
The strength of the money cannot be overlooked, the summer games were held in October in 1964 and 1968 when the weather is more pleasant in the northern hemisphere for the athletes but having the event in July and August is more beneficial for television networks. For the past 3 decades the olympics have been held in the peak of summer because of the summer lull in the TV network’s schedule. Prime time programming is generally on hiatus in the summer and all major sporting seasons are also on break making the Olympics the perfect filler for the summer months.
All this and we haven’t even gotten to mentioning the tourism industry, hotels, restaurants and stores in Japan that has been gearing up for the games with renovations and added support for the influx of foreign tourists who will all be at a loss.
The Japanese Sentiment
Despite Japan currently being an outlier in the number of corona cases, all projections assume that this will not last. Regardless of this, the Olympics is a global event and cannot be considered under a solely Japanese microscope.
About 70% of Japanese people think that the games should be postponed due to the coronavirus according to a local news poll, and despite the grave efforts of Abe and the IOC to avoid this same sentiment, it is looking like this might be the way things are headed.
While news media around the world is rife with speculation, USA Today and CBS Sports just published “breaking news” stories claiming that the games are definitely postponed but not before adding a footnote that neither the IOC or Japan has made and official announcement.
LDP member, Toshihiro Nikai said, “the position they are in right now is extremely difficult, whether we go left or right there are huge impacts on many people and industries and this is not a decision that can be taken lightly, and whatever decision is made has to be properly explained to the country.”
As the host nation, no matter what the scenario, Japan will have to take responsibility (just like it was forced to with the Diamond Princess), not he IOC. Writer Masaki Bota outlined the entire situation eloquently in an ITmedia Business article. If there is a recurrence of the virus at Tokyo 2020 the Japan bashing will see no end, just like it happened with the cruise ship because this time it's not vacationers on a cruise but top athletes from all over the world.
But more importantly, can Japan even handle an outbreak during the olympics? According to Bota it's impossible. Japanese hospitals already have another health crisis they were preparing for during the Olympics — heatstroke. If you add coronavirus to heatstroke to Japanese bedside manner for foreigners, it is no question that the world will see Japan in a totally different and unforgiving light.
In the midst of the world and Japanese people wondering if their government is doing enough to control the spread of COVID-19 domestically and the cases worldwide showing no sign or slowing down, Japan’s Olympic dreams are quickly fading into the distance. Postponing the games will be a logistical nightmare, especially since smaller events that accompany the games all require venues that tend to be booked 1-2 years in advance. So even if the games are pushed to 2021, it is difficult to imagine that the event will take place in its entirety, there will still be many people who lose out.
So with all eyes on Japan, this is either their moment to shine as an example of a forward thinking country that can handle the crises of the future, or they can stumble like the did with the Diamond Princess, and once again fall a little farther from grace in the eyes of the world.
About the Author
I've been in Japan so long that I say my heart is Japanese. And still this country impresses me from time to time. In those moments I think, "That's why I love living in Japan."