With $20 Billion on the Line, Tokyo Shows Olympic Hosts Must Plan for Pandemics

The Tokyo Olympic Games are scheduled to kick off in 53 weeks, the postponement a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Whether the Olympics take place in 2021 or if they are canceled, Tokyo 2020 has become a case study for how future Olympic hosts will need to demonstrate their readiness for the worst-case scenario: cancellation.

If the Olympics are to take place, the urgency of finding and distributing a vaccine cannot be understated. Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College in the United States, told Kyodo news.

“The best scenario at this point, given that the infrastructural and facilities expenditures exceed $20 billion, would be for there to be a readily available, effective vaccine and for the games to proceed without limitation in 2021,” said Zimbalist.

However, without a vaccine, “the best outcome would be for the games to be canceled,” said Zimbalist.

Due to the mounting costs of holding the Olympics one year later than originally planned, Zimbalist thinks that the IOC should pay half the cost of postponing the Olympics by one year, regardless of how much that is. The IOC has agreed to allocate $650 million to help with the postponement, though the final price is likely to reach multiple billions of dollars.

“The IOC likes to say it is a partner of Tokyo 2020. So, if the added costs are $3 billion, I think the IOC should cover $1.5 billion,” says Zimbalist.

The IOC noted today that it had already provided $100 million of financial aid to national federations and National Olympic Committees (NOCs), with $63 million going to the NOCs and $37 going towards international federations (IFs).

Zimbalist also said that going forward, future host cities need to recognize the “possibility of a pandemic” and do away with “unnecessary expenditures.” Tokyo 2020 has already stated that it will seek to create a more “simplified Games” in 2021, though Zimbalist believes these savings will be minor compared to the additional cost of pushing the Games back one year.

With so much at stake for Japan, it’s no surprise that the country continues to go forward with its reopening and has started to make spectator sports available to the public once more.

Japan will now allow 5,000 spectators to attend spring baseball and soccer games, upping the cap from 1,000 and signaling that its government is optimistic that the economy and society will be able to reopen, despite no vaccine for COVID-19 available at the time of this writing. The spectator limit will increase to 50 percent of a venue’s full capacity on August 1st, though this decision is ultimately left to each individual club. Before fans can enter a venue they must have their temperatures checked, and while in the stadiums must wear masks and refrain from their regular levels of cheering.

Readmitting spectators to Nippon Professional Baseball (NPB) and Japanese Professional Football League (J-League) games has been popular with players and fans who can compete and watch outdoors in open-air environments. Indoor venues remain a cause of concern for some Japanese citizens, such as one baseball fan who said, “It’s OK if it’s outdoors, but wouldn’t games in domes and the like increase the risk of infection?”

It is important to note that the NPB, the J-League, and their spectators comprise a largely insular community of Japanese citizens, and international travel to competitions is not usually required. International travel to compete in other sporting competitions, on the other hand, remains a concern to some athletes and citizens.

Japanese tennis player Yoshihito Nishioka, who is ranked 48th in the world on the men’s ATP tour, has expressed concerns about resuming international competition during the pandemic. Speaking about the closed-door U.S. Open, where he was set to compete, Nishioka said “If you have [the U.S. Open] under these circumstances, I think everyone is going to be exposed (to the coronavirus),” reports Kyodo News. “What’s it going to be like if things are unclear and people are doing whatever they want,” said Nishioka.

If Japanese athletes do travel to the United States, they will be forced to undergo a two-week self-quarantine upon their return to Japan.

Even as Japan reopens its society, travel remains a highly-regulated affair with many restrictions still in place, both limiting where Japanese citizens can go and who can enter Japan. Currently, nationals from 129 countries are banned from entry into Japan, including the United States. Japan may begin easing travel restrictions for certain regions and countries, including China, South Korea, and Taiwan. In June, Japan received only an estimated 2,600 foreign travelers, a 99.9% decrease from one year earlier. Japan received 31.88 million foreign tourists in 2019–the highest number recorded in one year since 1964 when the Japan Tourism Agency starting compiling tourist data. Japan had hoped to attract 40 million foreign tourists in 2020.

Furthermore, the Japanese government revealed that it is considering easing travel restrictions for athletes that have qualified to participate in the Olympic and Paralympic Games, Kyodo News reports. However, it is possible athletes and officials will have to prove they are not infected with COVID-19 by taking the polymerase chain reaction test several times, including before and after traveling to Japan.

Though Japan lifted its state of emergency in May, a recent uptick in infection rates has caused concern that Japan may have eased restrictions too soon and that a second wave of the virus may be forthcoming. On Wednesday, July 15th, Japan reported 165 new coronavirus cases.

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9 months ago

Pandolympics I, 2021

Brian M
9 months ago

I hate to say it, but I give Tokyo 2021 a 25% chance of happening at best. It’s sad, but that’s just the reality of it.

Reply to  Brian M
9 months ago

I think that’s us seeing through the lens of people living in the US, UK or Latin America, where this thing rages on.

If you’re in Asia or mainland Europe, life is starting to look something close to normal.

I suspect what might happen is athletes having to quarantine for quite a long time on arrival in Japan and compete with no or limited crowds.

Given the training situation for many over the preceding year, a likely disrupted arrival and then no crowds, I think world records will be few and far between but there could be plenty of shock winners.

Commercially though, it’s a huge blow to the IOC, which already faced its first games since 2000… Read more »

Reply to  Togger
9 months ago

They would probably not be economically viable for Japan without crowds. It’d probably be cheaper for them to just cut their losses and cancel.

Reply to  Troyy
9 months ago

There are insurance policies in place for the Olympics though.

If I were the insurers I’d be more than happy to put up cost of ticket sales in order to see the event go ahead rather than see the whole thing cancelled and carry the cost of all lost advertising, TV etc.

9 months ago

Some rando from Smith College? C’mon. “Infrastructural”? LOL everyone relax.

About Reid Carlson

Reid Carlson

Reid Carlson originally hails from Clay Center, Kansas, where he began swimming at age six.  At age 14 he began swimming club year-round and later with his high school team, making state all four years.  He was fortunate enough to draw the attention of Kalamazoo College where he went on to …

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