Coronavirus outbreak means decision needed on Tokyo Olympics by May, says top IOC official Dick Pound
A senior member of the International Olympic Committee says that if it proves too dangerous to hold the Olympics in Tokyo this summer because of the coronavirus outbreak, organisers are more likely to cancel it altogether than to postpone or move it.
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 also gained a foothold in South Korea, the Middle East and Europe, raising fears of a pandemic. Japan itself has reported four deaths.
So could the Olympics be cancelled?
If the IOC decides the Games cannot go forward as scheduled in Tokyo, “you’re probably looking at a cancellation,” Canadian IOC official Dick Pound said.
In the host contract for the Tokyo Olympics, part XI refers to Termination, and section 66 talks about “Termination of Contract”.
The first item in a list of scenarios that would allow the IOC to terminate the contract and “withdraw the Games from the [host] city” is if:
i) the Host Country is at any time, whether before the Opening Ceremony or during the Games, in a state of war, civil disorder, boycott, embargo decreed by the international community or in a situation officially recognised as one of belligerence or if the IOC has reasonable grounds to believe, in its sole discretion, that the safety of participants in the Games would be seriously threatened or jeopardised for any reason.“
The Tokyo host contract does not mention health, only safety.
However, the host contract for the Paris Olympics — to be held in 2024 — refers to the IOC having “reasonable grounds to believe that the health or safety of participants in the Games would be seriously threatened or jeopardised for any reason.”
Could the Olympics be postponed?
As for the possibility of postponement, Pound 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.'”
There is also a lot of money tied up in the Olympics.
American TV network NBC is the Olympics rights broadcaster in the United States.
NBC paid $US4.38 billion ($6.64 million) in 2011 for the rights to four Summer and Winter Olympics, culminating in this year’s Tokyo Games.
Could the Games be moved?
Pound, who has been on the IOC since 1978, said moving to another city 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.”
Pound said he would not favour a scattering of Olympic events to other places around the world as “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.
However, London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey has recently said that London could “step up” and host the Games if Tokyo is unable to do so due to the Coronavirus outbreak.
That was echoed by incumbent Mayor Sadiq Khan, who said that: “London, as it has done throughout history, will do its best to step up to the plate.”
London has hosted the Olympics three times, most recently in 2012, with much of the infrastructure in the Stratford area of east London still in place.
Have the Olympics been moved before?
The city stepping in to host the Games is not without precedent.
In 1908, London was selected to replace Rome at short notice after the 1906 eruption of Mount Vesuvius forced the diversion of funds from the hosting of the Olympics to rebuilding the city of Naples.
London also hosted the Games in 1948, shortly after the end of World War II.
Tokyo’s Governor, Yuriko Koike, reacted angrily to the comments from London, saying the discussion was “not appropriate.”
The British Olympic Association also distanced themselves from the comments, according to a report in the Daily Telegraph.
When will they have to decide?
Pound 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.
Pound also cast doubt on the possibility of a one-year delay because of financial consequences for Japan and scheduling factors.
He added that the future of the Tokyo Games is largely out of the IOC’s hands and depends on the course the virus takes.
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”.
What should athletes do in the meantime?
Pound encouraged athletes to keep training. About 11,000 are expected for the Olympics, which are scheduled to open on July 24, and 4,400 are bound for the Paralympics, which open August 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.”
Meanwhile, Australian Sports Minister Richard Colbeck has said the country’s Olympians could be pulled out of this year’s Games if it means their health is at risk.
“Australian athletes are ready to make their mark at the Tokyo Olympics — but it should not be at the risk of their health and wellbeing,” he told News Corp.
“We continue to work with the relevant authorities both here and overseas to ensure our athletes remain safe and protected as the response to the coronavirus continues.”