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2021 or Nothing: Will Tokyo be Ready for the Olympics?

Timothy Pinzone

The Olympics. The event that stops the world.

Since 2020, it seems like the world may have stopped the Olympics. The Tokyo Olympics was initially scheduled to be held in July 2020, however as a result of COVID-19 the Olympics had to be postponed to July 2021 with questions looming over whether the delayed games will be able to go ahead at all.

Due to increased pressure from various Olympic committees around the world, the Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic Games (TOCOG) and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced on March 24, 2020 that they would reschedule the games to a date “beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021”. On March 30, 2020, the IOC and TOCOG confirmed the Olympics would commence on July 23, 2021. Postponing the games by a year is estimated to cost the Japanese Government an additional US$5.8 billion highlighting the repercussions of delaying the Olympics.

Despite the pandemic, Tokyo’s Olympic organiser, Tostito Muto, expressed that COVID-19 is the reason why the Olympics should go ahead, that “humans can coexist peacefully through sport” despite current global health insecurity. The Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) has also supported the Olympics going ahead despite rumours of cancellation. But with a delay to the Olympics in 2020 and with a worsening COVID-19 situation in Japan, the world is wondering if our athletes should still compete in 2021.

Key to the Olympics debate is the ability for Tokyo to safely run and host the games. Some strategies to enhance safety have included the establishment of player hubs and the rollout of playbooks which will set the guidelines for athletes and participants during the games to facilitate a COVID-19 safe environment. For many other sports worldwide, player hubs have been organised. These usually involve players and squads staying in one location across the season and being isolated from the outside world. This has been complicated enough with one sport, within one country. When it comes to the Olympics, however, an event which encompasses hundreds of different events with thousands of different athletes and entourages, it seems nearly impossible to safely isolate this many individuals during the Olympics.

Despite such precautions, the consequences of Japan not hosting the Olympics are daunting. The Tokyo Olympics, prior to COVID-19, were set to be the most expensive in history costing over $USD12.6 billion. The IOC, the current coordinating body of the Olympics, is also a commercial sports business that relies on income from broadcasting rights, sponsors and merchandise. The IOC would therefore not want to lose the potential return on investment should the games be cancelled. Further speculation on whether Japan will be automatically selected for a future Olympics is also being discussed, with Japan potentially being given the currently vacant 2032 slot.

The risks of hosting the Olympics are also extraordinarily high. Japan has seen a surge in COVID-19 cases since the beginning of November 2020 which indicates that there is not a lot of room for mismanagement. Cases reached an average of 6,446 per day in the first few weeks of January 2021, with a State of Emergency declared since January 7, 2021. An event on a scale as large as the Olympics could cause a global outbreak just as the world is about to rollout vaccines. Controversial debates about whether athletes should be allowed to ‘queue jump’ and receive vaccines ahead of others, such as essential workers, the elderly and immuno-compromised persons, also punctuate the complexity of the issue.

It seems unlikely that the games can be postponed any further with the Japanese government’s lease on the Olympic Village expiring at the end of 2021. With the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics being held in February and the FIFA World Cup in November next year, Tokyo will struggle to schedule in the Olympics with the current timeline and it seems improbable that the Olympics would compete well with such considerations. The Japanese Government and the IOC will need to reacquire all the venues, sponsors and partners for the games will need to be re-signed and postponement will require rehiring staff and officials for the Olympics. All of which seems like a monumental task to organise for a third consecutive year. The cancellation of the games has prompted speculation about the future of the Olympics. If these games are cancelled, will other nations see the risk of the Olympics as worth the investment or will countries decide to avoid hosting the Olympics out of fear of cancellation again? Will Tokyo get another chance to host? Will Tokyo push the games ahead despite the risk or will Japan be able to responsibly host the Olympics? As the IOC President Dick Pound has suggested, “it is either 2021 or nothing”.


Timothy Pinzone is in his final year of a Bachelor of Security Studies degree at Macquarie University. His interests include geopolitics, intelligence and diplomacy.



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