IOC member casts doubt on postponing or moving Tokyo Games
A senior member of the International Olympic Committee said Tuesday that if it proves too dangerous to hold the Olympics in Tokyo this summer because of the coronavirus outbreak, organizers are more likely to cancel it altogether than to postpone or move it.
Dick Pound, a former Canadian swimming champion who has been on the IOC since 1978, making him its longest-serving member, estimated there is a three-month window — perhaps a two-month one — to decide the fate of the Tokyo Olympics, meaning a decision could be put off until late May.
"In and around that time, I’d say folks are going to have to ask: ‘Is this under sufficient control that we can be confident about going to Tokyo or not?’" he said in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press.
As the games draw near, he said, "a lot of things have to start happening. 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."
If the IOC decides the games cannot go forward as scheduled in Tokyo, "you’re probably looking at a cancellation," he said.
The viral outbreak that began in China two months ago has infected more than 80,000 people globally and killed over 2,700, the vast majority of them in China. But the virus has gained a foothold in South Korea, the Middle East and Europe, raising fears of a pandemic. Japan itself has reported four deaths.
Pound encouraged athletes to keep training. About 11,000 are expected for the Olympics, which open July 24, and 4,400 are bound for the Paralympics, which open Aug. 25.
"As far as we all know, you’re going to be in Tokyo," Pound said. "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."
Former University of Minnesota wrestler Jayson Ness is one of those athletes training for the Olympics and hopes the games will be played.
"My full time job, that’s what I’m doing all day, everyday, working for the Olympics," Ness said. "It would be very rewarding to get there and be able to win a medal, but at the same time it’s out of your hands."
Wrestling coach Dustin Schlatter hopes the outbreak doesn’t cancel the Olympics.
"We’re hopeful that things will work out and everything will get better and we will still be able to compete there," Schlatter said. "It’s disheartening to hear that potentially it could be cancelled, but at the same time it’s not worth the loss of life."
The modern Olympics, which date to 1896, have been canceled only during wartime. The Olympics in 1940 were supposed to be in Tokyo but were called off because of Japan’s war with China and World War II. The Rio Games in Brazil went on as scheduled in 2016 despite the outbreak of the Zika virus.
Pound repeated the IOC’s stance — that it is relying on consultations with the World Health Organization, a United Nations body, to make any move.
As for the possibility of postponement, he said: "You just don’t postpone something on the size and scale of the Olympics. There’s so many moving parts, so many countries and different seasons, and competitive seasons, and television seasons. You can’t just say, `We’ll do it in October.’"
Pound said moving to another city also seems unlikely "because there are few places in the world that could think of gearing up facilities in that short time to put something on."
London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey has suggested the British capital as an alternative. Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike suggested the offer was an attempt to use the virus for political purposes.
Pound said he would not favor a scattering of Olympic events to other places around the world because that wouldn’t "constitute an Olympic Games. You’d end up with a series of world championships." He also said it would be extremely difficult to spread around the various sports over a 17-day period with only a few months’ notice.
Holding the Olympics in Tokyo but postponing them by a few months would be unlikely to satisfy North American broadcasters, whose schedules are full in the fall with American pro football, college football, European soccer, basketball, baseball and ice hockey. Other world broadcasters also have jammed schedules.
"It would be tough to get the kind of blanket coverage that people expect around the Olympic Games," Pound said.
He also cast doubt on the possibility of a one-year delay. Japan is officially spending $12.6 billion to organize the Olympics, although a national audit board says the country is spending twice that much.
"You have to ask if you can hold the bubble together for an extra year," Pound said. "Then, of course, you have to fit all of this into the entire international sports schedule."
Pound said the IOC has been building up an emergency fund, reported to be about $1 billion, for unforeseen circumstances to help the IOC and the international sports federations that depend on income from the IOC. About 73% of the IOC’s $5.7 billion income in a four-year Olympic cycle comes from broadcast rights.
"It’s not an insurable risk, and it’s not one that can be attributed to one or the other of the parties," he said. "So everybody takes their lumps. There would be a lack of revenue on the Olympic movement side."
Pound said the future of the Tokyo Games is largely out of the IOC’s hands and depends on the course the virus takes.
"If it gets to be something like the Spanish flu," Pound said, referring to the deadly pandemic early in the 20th century that killed millions, "at that level of lethality, then everybody’s got to take their medicine."
Here’s some questions and answers about the virus and its threat to the Olympics.
Q: WILL THE TOKYO OLYMPICS BE CANCELED OR POSTPONED?
The IOC, local organizers, the Tokyo city government and everyone involved is saying "no." That includes Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. However, a respected Japanese virologist said this week the games would have to be postponed or canceled if they opened tomorrow.
"I’m not sure of the situation at the end of July," Dr. Hitoshi Oshitani said. He said it would be "difficult to have the Olympics (now)." Other scientists have said they can’t forecast what the situation will be in five months.
Q: ARE OTHER EVENTS LINKED TO THE OLYMPICS BEING CANCELED OR POSTPONED?
Yes. And the list is growing. Tokyo organizers announced very late on Friday night — near midnight Tokyo time — that training for 80,000 unpaid volunteers was being delayed until May or later. Some volunteers come from abroad. Organizers acknowledge they cannot run the games without them. Organizers this week also announced that a small test event in Tokyo Feb. 28-March 1 would be limited to only Japanese. The test is for Paralympic boccia and was to involve non-Japanese athletes.
Two upcoming test events — wheelchair rugby on March 12-15 and gymnastics on April 4-6 — are to have international fields. Tokyo spokesman Masa Takaya said this week he could not guarantee that non-Japanese would take part.
The Tokyo Marathon on March 1, usually with over 30,000 runners, is being limited to a few hundred elite athletes.
Dozens of sports events outside Japan are affected. Some Olympic qualifiers are being moved or postponed, which complicates life for athletes, sports federations, national Olympic bodies, and border officials who have to deal with health issues.
Q: WILL THE OLYMPICS BE MOVED TO ANOTHER COUNTRY?
Shaun Bailey, a Conservative Party candidate for London mayor, made that suggestion last week. It sounded like a political stunt. Some in London also wanted the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics moved to the British capital because of the Zika virus. The games went ahead and the mosquito-borne virus subsided.
Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said it was "inappropriate" to make a serious issue like the virus a talking point for London’s mayoral race. London held the Summer Games in 2012.
Q: WHAT ABOUT THE TORCH RELAY?
So far it is on. The relay starts on March 26 in Fukushima prefecture in northeastern Japan and will circulate around the country for several months. It will involve mostly Japanese carrying the torch, but certainly non-Japanese will be involved. Any change to planning would be a worrying sign.
Q: HOW MUCH MONEY IS INVOLVED?
Local Japanese companies have paid over $3 billion for sponsorship deals to local organizers, a record amount that is at least twice any previous Olympics. Local organizers say they are spending about $13 billion to organize the Olympics, although a national audit report puts the cost at twice that much.
U.S. television network NBC pays about $1 billion for the broadcast rights to the Olympics. The July 24-Aug. 9 Tokyo Olympic slot is mostly determined by television. Moving the Olympics back a few months — when the weather is cooler in Tokyo — would seem impossible with the sports broadcast calendar filled with American football, college football, baseball, basketball, and ice hockey. The European soccer schedule is also packed beginning in fall.
Almost three-quarters of the income for the International Olympic Committee — $5.7 billion in a four-year cycle — is from broadcast rights.
Any change would cause massive disruption to the 11,000 Olympic athletes and another 5,000 Paralympic athletes — and their staffs, families and coaches. Tokyo hotels are booked solid during the Olympics — not to mention flights — with 7.8 million tickets available for the Olympics, and 2.3 million for the Paralympics.