The Real Reason Why Coronavirus Won’t Cancel the 2020 Olympic Games

I’m not a doctor, nor a public health expert. But, I spend a lot of time listening to doctors and public health experts on the radio on my daily drives.

After listening to a lot of really smart, really well-educated people on the topic, even though they don’t all agree on exactly what is happening or will happen with the outbreak of the novel 2019 coronavirus, I’ve come to one overwhelming conclusion:

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics should not be cancelled to stop the spread of the coronavirus.

While messages have been mixed over the last few days, with the IOC declaring definitively that the Olympic Games will happen, but with Japanese officials striking a more measured tone, Games preparations are still all-systems-go on the ground.

The Olympic Games are still more than 4 months away, and one thing is abundantly clear from the opinions of experts: either the coronavirus will have come and passed by late July in the heat of summer, or it will be a pandemic that won’t be stopped by cancelling the Olympic Games. In fact, if it reaches pandemic scales, it’s quite plausible that the vast majority of people who would be attending the Olympic Games will have contracted the disease by then and recovered.

This is not to downplay the risks of the disease. If top-end estimates, that have ranged from contraction by 40% to 70% of the American population, are accurate, then there will almost certainly be a disruption to our daily lives. That being said, for most people with normal immune systems and who are under the age of, say, 60, the disease has had mild symptoms, similar to a flu, without long-term impacts. Given that at every major swim meet, a huge number of athletes get sick anyway with “the flu” or “a cold,” it doesn’t seem like a mild flu in the 3 month leadup to the Games should have any substantial impact upon training or preparation, even if it’s a huge percentage of the athletes.

But what seems abundantly clear is that nobody expects this disease to sort of trickle along for 4 months and then suddenly explode into a global pandemic as the result of a mass gathering like the Olympics. Several experts have said that the flight cancellations from China to the U.S., for example, were probably largely ineffective at impacting the spread of the disease.

Even if there were some restrictions on spectator attendance, or perhaps an inexpensive test will be developed by then that can be administered to everyone before arriving in Tokyo for the Games, there seems to be no logical reason to cancel the events, at least for the athletes.

There’s a nagging moral high ground here, of course. “Think about the athletes, nobody ever thinks about the safety of the athletes, it’s all about the money.” In the contact sports (basketball, soccer, wrestling), if it was going to spread, it would spread in the training grounds long before arrival at the Olympics. In non-contact sports, like swimming, most athletes would likely risk breaking a strict home bound quarantine to continue training regardless of Olympic cancellation, because the world’s top swimmers are not simply going to lock themselves in their homes for 3 months and stop training.

That’s just not realistic.

So, if the coronavirus won’t substantially disrupt the training of the athletes more than maybe a few days out of the water or out of the gyms while showing symptoms anyway, then where is the real added risk of holding the competitions?

It’s about money, yes, in many regards. For most Olympians, the Olympic Games are a substantial source of their career earnings – directly or indirectly. But it’s also about the pride, the competition, the drive, the desire to prove themselves on the biggest stage, that is the reason that so many people from around the world commit themselves to the Olympic goal in the prime of their lives.

It all matters, the money and the rest, and is all worth fighting for.

Leave a Reply

22 Comment threads
37 Thread replies
Most reacted comment
Hottest comment thread
37 Comment authors
newest oldest most voted

At the end of the day the damage has been done – no matter what governments do now it still will spread but we should not let it affect our lives. It’s just as bad as flu and do we let flu take over our lives. No we don’t so why should we do it with this and affect the economy and our lives.


Unfortunately it does seem to be a bit more dangerous than the flu, in terms of mortality rate. Also, there is no current vaccine for COVID-19 and therefore spread is relatively uninhibited. This will put substantial strains on first responders and medical staff as cases become more prominent, exposure increases, hospitals reach capacity, and quarantine is implemented. Thankfully the influenza vaccine appears to be 50% successful at preventing disease at the present time. That being said, hopefully the disease just burns out but sadly it will take a substantial toll on at risk population.


Annual death rate in China is 7.7 per 1000. It means ~ 4000 people dies daily in Wuhan area for other than COVID-19 reasons. The virus by itself isn’t that dangerous than other factors that are shortening people’s lives. But the fear of unknown that is what creates a panic and exaggerations.


Think you mean 4,000 annually

Max C

11.8 million * 7.7/1000 ~= 90,000 per year / 365 ~= 249 people per day


I meant Hubei province with the population five times larger. So it would be about 1000 per day. 4000 is definitely a typo.

Woke Stasi

Remember Y2K? Airplanes were going to fall out of the sky. The banks would fail. The power grid would be compromised resulting in economic chaos. None of that happened. I think we’ll ride this out. Who knows, with the added hygiene precautions people are taking, perhaps our current flu season will not be as bad as usual (typically 29M Americans get it) — that would be a silver lining.


> None of that happened.

Yes, none of that happened. The reason none of that happened is that an enormous amount of people spent an enormous amount of time *ensuring* that none of that happened. We’re talking many person-centuries of work.

Y2K is absolutely the worst example to use as far as doom-and-gloom predictions go. The disasters were *averted*, they didn’t fail to materialize due to inaccurate predictions.

This is a huge pet peeve of mine because Y2K is often used as an example of why disaster planning isn’t necessary, when it’s really a great example of why disaster planning is critical and can be hugely successful.

Woke Stasi

I have some products manufactured in Donguan by an HK-based company. Their CNY was extended by a week, but now they’re back to 90% operational productivity. That’s one small example of some good news.


Lol. Are you seriously comparing Y2K to covid-19 which is, possibly, a pandemic? Most people will not die from covid-19 but a lot still will and it is our job to ensure that it doesn’t spread by taking the appropriate measures. If that means the Japanese have deemed it best the Olympics need to be canceled for their own safety (especially since the majority of the Japanese population are elderly and so are more at risk) then so be it.


I wouldn’t be so sure, Braden. Current data indicates mortality is 14% for elder people, and 50% for anyone admitted into ICU in need of a ventilator. Japan is the worlds most extreme example of an aging population with over 20% of their population over 65. Do the math and your looking at upwards of 3.5 million dead after hosting the biggest tourist event in the world.

I’d put money on the Games happening with no spectators foreign or native, and all athletes quarantined to village and venues


“The vast majority of cases in China — 87% — were in people ages 30 to 79, the China Center for Disease Control reported last month based on data from all 72,314 of those diagnosed with Covid-19 as of Feb. 11. That probably reflects something about biology more than lifestyle, such as being in frequent contact with other people. Teens and people in their 20s also encounter many others, at school and work and on public transit, yet they don’t seem to be contracting the disease at significant rates: Only 8.1% of cases were 20-somethings, 1.2% were teens, and 0.9% were 9 or younger. The World Health Organization mission to China found that 78% of the cases reported as of… Read more »


Mortality rates are pretty much a crapshoot at the moment. There just isn’t enough accurate data about who has been infected. It is certainly poses a huge threat, but claiming that 3.5 million people will die based on preliminary mortality rates based off of flawed data is dangerously misleading.


Agree with Landrew, also consider, those being tested have a high probability positive. That will skew the mortality numbers (there are probably a great number of positive people who are recovering and not being tested).


Forgive the sensational number. My only claim is to the particular vulnerability of Japan’s aging population, which is large.

About Braden Keith

Braden Keith

Braden Keith is the Editor-in-Chief and a co-founder of He first got his feet wet by building The Swimmers' Circle beginning in January 2010, and now comes to SwimSwam to use that experience and help build a new leader in the sport of swimming. Aside from his life on the InterWet, …

Read More »