The inevitable announcement came down this morning from the International Olympic Committee, which made the unprecedented call to postpone the Tokyo Games until sometime next year after discussions with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and local organizers.
The Tokyo Paralympics, which were supposed to take place a couple of weeks after the Olympics, are also postponed.
The IOC had hoped to take the next four weeks to get its affairs in order before announcing a final decision, but that ship sailed in a hurry as the coronavirus pandemic continued to spread and an increasing number of voices emerged calling for the Olympics to be moved off their July 24, 2020 start date. The strongest of these voices came from Canada, which announced Sunday night that it would not send athletes to Tokyo if the Games went ahead as planned.
In its statement announcing the postponement, the IOC said that it and Japan’s leaders hope the rescheduled Tokyo Games could still “stand as a beacon of hope to the world during these troubled times and that the Olympic flame could become the light at the end of the tunnel in which the world finds itself at present.”
That remains to be seen. It’s pretty clear right now that no one can predict even what the next few days will hold for this planet — much less the next few weeks, months, even years. But, working under the (admittedly shaky) assumption that the world will have the pandemic under control by next year, let’s try and parse some of the biggest things we know and don’t know about what the postponement of the Tokyo Games will mean.
When will the Tokyo Olympics happen?
We don’t know yet, but we can take a pretty good guess. The IOC said only that the Games will be rescheduled to “a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021.” Most likely, they’ll be held pretty close to the original July 24 to Aug. 9 dates. There’s a reason that time of year was chosen: it’s a relatively dead time in the sports calendar around the world, which allows the Olympics to own the spotlight.
Holding the Games more than a week or two earlier or later than those dates would be very tricky. Soccer’s European Championship, which is a massively popular event, has already staked out its own rescheduled dates of June 11 to July 11 of 2021. The two months before that are jam-packed with events like the NBA and NHL playoffs and the final rounds of the UEFA Champions League. And you can’t move into late August or September without bumping up against the start of the college and pro football seasons in the United States. That would likely be a non-starter for NBC, which has tremendous pull with the IOC by virtue of accounting for about half of the organization’s worldwide broadcast-rights revenue.
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Why are they still being called the “Tokyo 2020” Olympics?
Because it’s not worth it to change the name. That would entail countless updates to things like logos, merchandise and millions of pieces of content that have already been created with the current branding. Organizers of the Euro 2020 soccer tournament showed the sensible path last week when they decided to keep the name upon announcing they were delaying their event until next summer.
How much work is it to move the Olympics back a year?
It’s almost unfathomable. Think about how complicated it will be for, say, the NHL or NBA to start back up when they’re able to. Now multiply that by — who even knows?
The Olympics are just the hub of a massive sports ecosystem that includes major international events like national and world championships, World Cup stops and, of course, Olympic qualifiers. Many of those will have to be moved, postponed, cancelled or otherwise modified to accommodate the new Olympic dates. And those events are all run by different governing bodies that rely on them for revenue from sponsors, broadcast partners and ticket buyers. The ripple effect is massive.
For example, take the Olympics’ two most popular sports — swimming and track and field. Both have world championships scheduled for the summer of 2021, and they both overlap with the likely new dates for the Olympics. So do you push them back? Cancel them altogether? This is the kind of stuff that will need to be sorted out.
Encouragingly, the initial responses from big governing bodies suggest that everyone understands the need to be extra-flexible. The organization in charge of swimming signalled that it’s ready to talk things out with the organizers of its 2021 world championship in Fukuoka, Japan. The track and field world governing body said it’s already exploring “alternative dates, including dates in 2022” for its world championships that were supposed to happen Aug. 6 to15, 2021 in Oregon. It also said it’s looking into a new qualification system to account for the Olympic postponement.
That raises another big question:
What will this do to athletes?
The initial reaction of those who have spoken publicly seems to be one of mostly relief. No one has to worry anymore about making the difficult decision of whether to risk their health by flying across the world to join up with people from 200-odd countries during a global pandemic.
And no one has to worry anymore about keeping up their training regimens just in case the Olympics ended up happening this summer. That had become virtually impossible in large swaths of the world with the onset of social distancing and the closure of so many training facilities. A lot of athletes had also expressed concern about a potentially uneven playing field. The coronavirus pandemic has touched almost every corner of the world — but not all equally. That could have given some athletes an edge.
But once that initial wave of relief subsides, it’ll become more clear that there will be winners and losers as a result of holding the Olympics (likely) a full year later. Some older athletes were surely pushing the envelope to still be viable competitors this summer. Another year subjected to the undefeated ravages of time could knock them off that tightrope. On the flip side, the delay could work in favour of some younger athletes who weren’t quite ready to compete in 2020. Another year of training and seasoning could turn them into contenders.
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Then there’s the question of qualifying. The IOC says 57 per cent of the spots in the Tokyo Olympics are already spoken for. Do you honour those? That seems likely because re-staging all those qualifying events would be a massive headache. At the same time, will all those qualified athletes still be worthy in an extra year? It’s probable that a few people who don’t deserve to be there will be, and vice versa.
And what about the 43 per cent of spots that still need to be filled? With sports at a standstill around the world, no one knows when it’ll be possible to hold qualifying events. World rankings or some other system might have to be devised to decide who gets to go to Tokyo. That work will likely fall on the various world governing bodies.
At the end of the day, a lot of things are going to be made up as we go along. This is a challenge unlike anything the Olympics — or anyone in sports — has faced before. And there’s no blueprint for how to pull it off.
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