SINGAPORE: On Tuesday (Mar 17), it was announced that one of the biggest sporting events in the world, football’s European Championships, will be postponed from this summer to June 2021.
The decision to postpone the quadrennial tournament, which was due to be staged in 12 European cities and had received 28.3 million ticket requests by last month, was seen as inevitable as the coronavirus outbreak moved close to 200,000 global infections.
PRESSURE MOUNTS ON THE OLYMPICS
With all the major domestic European leagues suspending their seasons, removing the main summer event was the only way to give those leagues some much-needed breathing space.
The decision placed even more attention on what will happen with the Tokyo Olympics Games that are due to start on Jul 24 – just six weeks later. The possibility of similarly postponing, rather than cancelling, is increasingly discussed.
Yet less than an hour after European football’s governing body made the announcement, the International Olympic Committee (IOC), which organises the Games, released a statement saying that nothing had changed.
“The IOC remains fully committed to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, and with more than four months to go before the Games, there is no need for any drastic decisions at this stage,” it said.
Any speculation at this moment would be counter-productive. The IOC encourages all athletes to continue to prepare for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 as best they can.
LESS FEASIBLE TO KEEP IT GOING
The option of keeping the Olympics going, though still on the table, appears to be fading away quickly.
READ: Commentary: Maybe the Tokyo Olympics should be postponed
Notwithstanding the cancellation of major sporting events such as Formula One, tennis and golf, having the Olympics at this stage is a major public health risk.
With countries around the world closing down borders in an attempt to limit the spread of the virus and airlines grounding aircraft, it remains to be seen if it will actually be physically possible for spectators to get to Japan.
Yet it is not just about the fans. Over 15,000 athletes are expected to participate in the Olympics and the following Paralympics. According to the IOC, only 57 per cent of athletes have secured their places at the Olympics with the rest still yet to qualify.
With qualification events around the world being suspended – boxing announced its decision on Monday (Mar 16) – deciding who makes it to the Olympics provides another headache.
For the remaining 43 per cent of places, the IOC will work with the international federations to make any necessary and practical adaptations to their respective qualification systems for Tokyo 2020, the Olympic body said.
Even attempts to catch athletes that take performance-enhancing drugs could be affected with the UK’s Anti-Doping Chief Executive Nicole Sapstead admitting that the spread of the virus would mean less testing.
TOO BIG TO SHIFT
Of course, the Olympics is of a bigger scale and nature than the other sports events that have been cancelled or postponed recently..
READ: Commentary: Three scenarios if the COVID-19 outbreak gets worse
At the end of 2019, it was estimated that the total cost to Japan of staging the event would be around S$17.89 billion. According to a recent report by SMBC Nikko Securities, the games not going ahead could contribute to the country’s annual GDP growth falling by 1.4 per cent, spurred by lower corporate revenues than last year.
This makes it more understandable that all parties, particularly Japan, are keen to see the Games go ahead as planned and not cancel it altogether.
Postponement, though an option, may even be more challenging than cancelling the Games altogether.
According to the IOC, 4.5 million tickets have been sold and 80,000 volunteers have been enlisted. There are major sponsorship and broadcasting commitments that also have to be considered even if postponement, and not cancellation, is opted for.
It is unclear if the same corporate sponsors will remain at the table should the Games be postponed, especially when the business environment becomes more challenging due to COVID-19.
In addition, with Japan experiencing winter from the fourth quarter onwards, even if we see the tapering off of the disease by then, it would be difficult to have many of the events in the Games in low temperatures.
All of which make the Games’ postponement more than a straightforward decision.
Moreover, with many experts predicting that we may not see the peak of COVID-19 until the end of the year, any decision on postponement would have to take this into account. If the postponement of the European Championships by a year is any indication, then it may be best to shift the Olympics to 2021.
However, one obstacle to postponing the Games to next year is that IOC’s agreement with Japan was to have the Olympics in 2020. Meaning that any rescheduling to next year would require both the IOC and the Japanese government going back to the drawing board to renegotiate a new contract. It is uncertain if both parties would be willing to spend the resources needed to do so again.
Hence that leaves a small window of August-October – since that will still meet contractual obligations and pre-empt the winter season – provided there are signs by June or July that COVID-19 is under control. Seeing these challenges in postponing the Olympics, it may be more feasible for the organisers to cancel it.
JAPAN’S STANCE SOFTENING
The IOC’s public determination to continue with the Olympics this summer though reflects what was, until the past few days at least, a similar resolve in Japan.
READ: Commentary: Japan shows how not to deal with a COVID-19 outbreak
Already however, the effects of the virus can be seen in the build-up. The Olympic torch relay, the traditional precursor to the opening ceremony, has been scaled back with many stages behind held without spectators.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has repeatedly said that the Games will go ahead as planned but after a video conference call with world leaders on Monday, his statement was seen as vaguer than before. He refused to answer questions from the media as to whether there had been talk of a delay especially as United States President Donald Trump had suggested such a move on Mar 12.
“I want to hold the Olympics and Paralympics perfectly, as proof that the human race will conquer the new coronavirus, and I gained support for that from the G-7 leaders,” Abe told reporters.
Even though Abe did not talk about a possible postponement, other prominent voices in the country have acknowledged that the Games not going ahead in July is a possibility.
“Not thinking about worst-case scenarios won’t eliminate the risk of them materialising,” leading politician Shigeru Ishiba said.
The government must start thinking now about what to do in case the Games are postponed or cancelled.
On Mar 11, Haruyuki Takahashi, a member of the Olympics organising committee’s executive board said that a postponement may be the most feasible option, though he was slapped down by Yoshiro Mori, the chief of the committee.
READ: Commentary: Why Japan’s move to close schools during COVID-19 outbreak upset many – and not just parents
The Japanese public also seem to be coming to terms with the possibility that the games may be rescheduled. A poll run by Asahi newspaper on Tuesday showed that 63 per cent of respondents thought that a delay was the best course of action.
TIME IS TICKING
The IOC may be correct that there is no need to make a decision too soon but the deadline can’t be too far away.
The head of the French Olympic Committee said on Monday that the coronavirus situation must be past its peak by the end of May for the games to go ahead in July.
READ: Commentary: Hot and humid weather may end the novel coronavirus – as well as the development of a vaccine
“My feeling is that if we’re still in the crisis by the end of May, I can’t see how the Games can happen (on time),” Denis Masseglia said.
If we are beyond the peak and the situation is getting better questions will arise about who qualifies, but we will find the least worst solution.
That may be indicative then that the Olympics is unlikely to continue this summer since experts say the peak of COVID-19 may only come at the end of the year. And with postponing likely to be more troublesome than cancelling the event, both the IOC and Japan may opt for the latter decision.
Since the modern Olympics started in 1896, only three summer games have not gone ahead as scheduled. The 1916, 1940 and 1944 events were cancelled due to World War I and World War II.
There have been no peacetime cancellations or postponements but it appears that history is set to be made this year. It would appear difficult for Japan to hold the Olympics this summer with public health still at risk.
European football did just that on Monday. It may well be that the Olympics will have to do the same or even decide to cancel. There is little time and few options remain.
John Duerden has lived in Asia for 20 years and covers the region’s sporting scene. He is the author of three books including Lions & Tigers – The History of Football in Singapore and Malaysia (2017).