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The Tokyo Olympics Will Likely Be Cancelled, Not Postponed if Coronavirus Is Not Contained

About 11,000 athletes from around the world are expected to travel to Tokyo for the Summer Olympics in July. This, as the novel coronavirus continues to spread in Japan, with 170 confirmed cases and 4 deaths.
February 26, 2020, 8:57am
tokyo olympics cancelled
For illustrative purposes only. [L] People wait for the train in Tokyo's Ginza area on February 17, 2020. Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU / AFP. [R] Photo by Kyle Dias on Unsplash

Japan is all set for the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics in July. After years of preparation, venues are finished, the mascot is looking cute, athletes are trained, and the rest of the world is hyped for the international sporting event. Unfortunately, it might not happen at all if the novel coronavirus (COVID-19) is not contained.

Dick Pound, a senior member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), told the Associated Press on Tuesday, February 25, that if the coronavirus situation does not improve in the summer, they are more likely to cancel the event rather than postpone it.


The outbreak that began in Wuhan, China two months ago has already infected more than 80,000 people and killed over 2,700, around the world, with a majority of cases in China. Without a cure in sight, the virus continues to spread globally, with Japan itself having four reported deaths and 170 cases of infection. Not to mention the hundreds of infected passengers on board a cruise ship that was quarantined in Yokohama.

Pound, the longest-serving member on the IOC and a former Canadian swimming champion, estimated the decision to finalise the fate of the sporting event to be put off until late May.

He said that come May, “Folks are going to have to ask: ‘Is this under sufficient control that we can be confident about going to Tokyo or not?’”

In the coming months, Japan will have to ramp up their security, food, hotels, and other industries as media and athletes fly in. About 11,000 athletes are expected to arrive for the Summer Olympics, while 4,400 are going for the Paralympics to be held in August. If the rest of the IOC ultimately decides that the games cannot push through, Pound said that we are “probably looking at a cancellation.”

However, Japanese Health Minister Katsunobu Kato argued on Tuesday, February 25, that it was still too early to talk about cancelling the event, Reuters reported.

When asked about 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.’”


A postponement would also affect global sports broadcasters, whose schedules will be stacked with American pro football, college football, European soccer, basketball, baseball, and ice hockey games by the fall.

“It would be tough to get the kind of blanket coverage that people expect around the Olympic Games,” Pound said.

But this whole fiasco should not be a reason for athletes to stop training.

“As far as we all know, you’re going to be in Tokyo. 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,” Pound said.

In 2016, despite the Zika virus outbreak, the Rio Games in Brazil still pushed through on schedule. The only times the Olympics were cancelled were because of war. The 1916 Olympics planned for Berlin was cancelled because of World War I. The 1940 Games to be held in Tokyo was postponed and moved to Helsinki, but the event was eventually cancelled because of World War II. The 1944 Olympics that was going to take place in London was also cancelled because of World War II.

As of February, a number of sporting events this year have already been impacted by the coronavirus outbreak. The 2020 Formula One Chinese Grand Prix has been postponed from its original date of April 17 to 19 at the Shanghai International Circuit. Organisers have yet to announce a new date.


Pound said that the IOC will rely on consultations with the World Health Organization on how to move further with the Olympics.

Moving the event to another city is highly unlikely due to a lack of proper facilities. The virus has also spread globally, so it would not be much help.

Shaun Bailey, a London mayoral candidate, suggested the British capital as an alternative as it hosted the Olympics in 2012. But Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike dismissed the offer as an attempt to use the virus for political purposes.

Meanwhile, scattering the Olympic games to other places around the world would defeat the purpose of the event. “You’d end up with a series of world championships,” Pound said.

In situations with unforeseen circumstances such as this, the IOC has an emergency fund of about $1 billion to assist international sports federations that depend on them for income.

About 73 percent of the IOC’s $5.7 billion income per four-year Olympic cycle comes from broadcast rights. Meanwhile, Japan is officially spending $12.6 billion to organise the Olympics, although a national audit board said the country is spending twice that much.

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