Michael Pavitt

A week is a long time in a pandemic.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga seven days ago gave his latest vow to hold the Olympic and Paralympic Games this year. The Games were later "cancelled" by an unnamed Government source, before being "uncancelled" by the Japanese Government.

Comparisons were understandably drawn between the build-up to the postponement last March and the situation now.

The number of coronavirus cases has risen after the discovery of new variants, several countries are still in lockdown and the Japanese Government has placed areas into state of emergencies and closed its borders.

There are some notable differences to last March.

Statements from Australia, Canada and the United States were viewed as crucial last year, with some suggestion their intention to withdraw ultimately forced a reluctant Japan to delay they Games. Yet the three National Olympic Committees flew out of the blocks to deny suggestions of cancellation this time around.

Athletes’ voices were strongly in favour of a postponement last year, but have largely been behind the Games taking place in 2021.

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach, however, did not exactly dissuade the comparisons to last year by insisting there was no "Plan B" for the Games.

If this is true, Bach would effectively be gambling the reported $25 billion (£18 billion/€20 billion) spent by Japan on the Games, a record $3.3 billion (£2.4 billion/€2.7 billion) in domestic sponsorship, as well as the vast broadcast and sponsorship rights which fund the Olympic Movement on the event taking place.

Bach is not the kind of man I imagine sat at a roulette table placing large sums on red or black, Games on or off.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has vowed to host the Olympic Games ©Getty Images
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has vowed to host the Olympic Games ©Getty Images

Finances are the most convincing argument for the Games to take place this year.

For a start, I cannot see Japan investing the sums it has in the Games to cancel and have the desire to spend more pursuing a Games in 2032, as was mooted last week.

Similarly, public support for a cancellation of the Games is understandable in the circumstances, but the Japanese Government would also have to at some stage answer to spending billions on a Games that never happened.

Given that John Coates back in 2017 warned Tokyo 2020 during a Coordination Commission visit that organisers had to reduce their budget avoid "giving a bad impression" to cities considering bidding for the Games, a cancelled Olympics would be seismic for the IOC, before you even consider the impact on International Federations finances.

The pandemic may prove too tough a task for the IOC, Tokyo 2020 and more importantly the Japanese Government to overcome.

It has been obvious for quite some time that hosting the Olympic Games in a "complete form", as hoped by former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe, will not be possible.

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics promised has arguably already been cancelled, an Olympic Games in Tokyo could yet be possible.

The concern for Tokyo is arguably not the actual running of the events at the Games but the arrival and departure of each of the participants, as shown by the problems experienced by Australian Open organisers in flying in 1,200 players, officials and support staff.

With over 11,000 athletes from 206 National Olympic Committees alone due to compete at the Olympic Games, the task facing Japan is daunting. It will remain the key issue hanging over the Games.

IOC President Thomas Bach has claimed there is no Plan B for the Games ©Getty Images
IOC President Thomas Bach has claimed there is no Plan B for the Games ©Getty Images

We are already looking at a Games short of frills and fans. Plans released for the Athletes’ Village to date are similar to the wave scenario operated at the Youth Olympics last year, with athletes effectively competing and then clearing off.

I wonder whether a possible tweak to dates and competition schedules could be possible in a bid to avoid an overlap between some of sports with the largest quota of athletes - namely swimming and athletics, which bookend the Games.

Should the pandemic not alleviate in the coming months, as organisers hope, could a worst-case scenario idea of delaying events at the Games or even exporting a handle of competitions out of Tokyo be contemplated, with the aim to reduce the number of entrants into Japan and mitigate risks?

I should stress, this is not about countries being seen to steal events away from Japan but instead lessening the burden and risk should the Games face the prospect of cancellation. Staging Olympic competitions is not easy and would also require potential co-hosts to have the pandemic under a degree of control.

Clearly Japan would have to host the vast majority of events and marquee competitions, including at specialist venues and facilities constructed for the Games.

As it stands, athletes are already expected to arrive in the Tokyo 2020 Athletes’ Village no earlier than five days prior to their competition and depart a maximum of two days afterwards, while sightseeing has been discouraged.

Given the conditions and the possibility of the Games potentially taking place behind closed doors, would there not be an argument for staging some sports elsewhere, held and broadcast under the Tokyo 2020 banner?

The guarantee of an Olympic competition, whether in Tokyo or elsewhere, would surely offer reassurance to athletes that their ongoing efforts will not go to waste.

The suggestion of moving events elsewhere, of course, flies in the face of what the Olympic Games claims it is about, bringing the youth of the world together in friendly competition.

Doubts continue over Tokyo 2020's hosting of the Olympic and Paralympic Games ©Getty Images
Doubts continue over Tokyo 2020's hosting of the Olympic and Paralympic Games ©Getty Images

The Olympic Games itself has a precedent, when equestrian competition was held six months before the rest of the Summer Olympic programme took place in Melbourne in 1956, due to issues surrounding the quarantining of horses.

Of course, the broadcasting dynamic has changed substantially since then, but if rightsholders were to kick up a fuss they will have a shock coming when they find out Paris 2024 has placed its surfing competition in Tahiti.

The Games itself is turning to multiple host cities and events shared across countries. For instance, Stockholm’s bid for the 2026 Winter Olympics suggested hosting sliding events in Latvia, while the Turkish bid of Erzurum was proposing to hold events in Russia.

Given Japan’s outrage in the IOC moving race walking and marathon events from Tokyo to Sapporo, I suspect there would be significant opposition to any such suggestion. I imagine there would also be significant issues regarding contracts for the Games. 

If it meant avoiding the financial fallout of cancellation and being seen to reduce the risk of welcoming the world to an increasingly uneasy population, I would whether it would be something the country could swallow.

Having travelled and experienced some of the preparations Tokyo 2020 had made prior to the pandemic, it gives me no joy to contemplate suggesting such a proposal. Yet some form of Games would arguably be better than seeing years of work disappear.

Hopefully we do not need to consider such a scenario, but drastic times may call for drastic measures.