The Summer Olympics have been canceled three times because the world was at war. They were held three times despite major boycotts. Until now, they had never been postponed.
But on Tuesday, the International Olympic Committee and the Japanese organizers gave in to the inevitable amid the surging coronavirus pandemic and delayed the Tokyo Games for a year because of “the unprecedented and unpredictable spread of the outbreak.”
Cancellation was a nonstarter. The Japanese already have invested an estimated $25 billion in preparations. Had the Games been scratched (which happened to Tokyo in 1940), recruiting future host cities would have been an all-but-impossible task.
The IOC, which depends upon television rights fees and corporate sponsorship for almost all of its $6 billion quadrennial revenue, would have been beggared. NBC, which paid nearly $1.5 billion for the Tokyo rights, would have taken a devastating hit.
And the world’s athletes, who are the centerpiece of the event, would have had their dreams snatched away.
But the IOC, which desperately — and critics said foolishly — had stalled for more time, had no choice but to push the Olympics into next year. The coronavirus had quickly spread to more than 190 countries, infecting more than 414,000 people and killing more than 18,000.
Athletes were unable to train, their facilities shut down, their travel restricted indefinitely. There was no possible way that 11,000 athletes from more than 200 nations could safely convene and compete in Tokyo or any other major city in late July.
The question now is, when would be a prudent time to hold the Games of the XXXIInd Olympiad? The IOC and the organizers said the date would be no later than next summer. But staging the Games in July, when the weather in Japan is exceptionally hot and humid, would be repeating what was an unwise decision to begin with.
Last summer, during what would have been the first week of the Olympics, 57 residents died from heat-related medical issues, and 18,000 were hospitalized. As it is, the marathons and race walks already had been moved to Sapporo, the site of the 1972 Winter Games, and start times of other endurance events had been changed.
Scheduling the Olympics for the spring would guarantee better competitive conditions, but the disease might not abate sufficiently to allow athletes the training time they’d need to perform at their optimum level.
The better option would be to slate the Games for late summer or early autumn, which is when they’re customarily scheduled when the venue is in Asia or the Southern Hemisphere and the weather is cooler and drier.
The Olympics in Seoul (1988) and Sydney (2000) were held in September, Tokyo (1964) and Mexico City (1968) in October, and Melbourne (1956) in late November. The athletes, who had at least five years’ notice of the dates, were able to adjust their preparations accordingly.
An autumn Games, though, would be undesirable for NBC, which would have to program against the MLB playoffs and NFL and college football. As it is, the 13-hour difference between Tokyo and New York means that NBC can’t televise most events in prime time.
The main reason the IOC was delaying its decision was that so many stakeholders are involved — broadcasters, sponsors, hundreds of thousands of ticket-holders, the international sporting federations, the national Olympic committees, and most importantly, the athletes who have been training since childhood for an opportunity that comes but once every four years.
The challenge for the Olympic family will be how to guarantee a level playing field for all of them whenever the Games are held. Only 57 percent of the competitors already had qualified. The rest were to be determined by various continental qualifiers and national trials, all of which have been called off. Fairness demands that those who’ve already earned their Tokyo tickets be allowed to keep them.
By delaying the Games until next year, countries such as the United States that have chosen only a fraction of their teams can hold their trials within the same window.
But what about sports such as tennis and golf that use world rankings? Athletes who looked solid for Olympic spots this year might not be as favorably placed a year from now. But freeze the rankings now and up-and-coming athletes would be locked out.
IOC president Thomas Bach said weeks ago that automatic entries could be given to those who appeared likely to qualify. But what would have been likely now could be decidedly iffy 12 months from now.
The dilemma for the major federations such as track and field and swimming, which hold their biennial world championships in odd-numbered years, is what to do about next summer’s events, which are scheduled for Eugene, Ore., and Fukuoka, Japan.
One solution would be to move them to spring, when athletes are approaching their fitness peak. The championships not only would be an invaluable world-class tuneup but also could be used instead of continental qualifiers, with Olympic berths awarded according to placement within a region, e.g. Americas, Europe, Africa, Asia. That was how the US men’s basketball team qualified despite its worst-ever (seventh) placement at last year’s World Cup.
There is no five-ringed road map for rescheduling the planet’s largest sports festival, which is why the IOC wanted another month to work through all the complexities. But when countries from four continents this week said they wouldn’t send teams, when federations and a growing number of athletes were calling for a postponement, the Lords of the Rings had to do the only thing they could have done. This year, better late than never makes more sense than ever.