Competing interests complicate high stakes for IOC
In the coming weeks, the International Olympic Committee must make its most consequential decision in 80 years: Will Tokyo 2020 happen as planned despite the global battle against the coronavirus?
Many sports properties have already confronted similar questions, but the Olympics have a uniquely difficult challenge, experts said. No other event approaches the Summer Games in terms of the variety and number of organizations that depend on the Olympics for revenue; no other event has so few chances to get it right.
Most of those sports bodies build their entire schedules around the event, and thousands of athletes have structured their life goals around this summer. In fact, 74% of all Olympians have competed in just one Games, according to historian Bill Mallon.
IOC leaders must consider the short-term details of cancellation or delay, but also will consider the long-term implications for the Olympics’ place in global politics and history, said Terrence Burns, executive vice president of global at Engine Shop.
“There is a very sobering sense of responsibility for something that transcends time, place, politics, and even financial issues,” said Burns, who has advised cities bidding for the Games and sponsors. “So what may seem obvious from a business perspective as the thing to do is much more complicated for the IOC. They’re not thinking of these Games in four months. They’re thinking of every Games for the next 100 years.”
Much is still unknown, but the global coronavirus response now clearly puts the Games in jeopardy. Many qualifying events, promotional campaigns and logistical operations leading up to the July 24 opening ceremony are already canceled or troubled. A delay may be possible, but that would alter schedules across dozens of sports. Many one-time expenses from sponsors and the Japanese government would likely be lost forever.
For most of last week, the IOC conducted conference calls with stakeholders — first the international federations that run individual Olympic sports, then every national Olympic committee, then Paralympics organizers, then sponsors and broadcasters. On March 17, the IOC said: “The IOC remains fully committed to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, and with more than four months to go before the Games there is no need for any drastic decisions at this stage,” adding that athletes should continue to prepare for the Games.
Whether the IOC actually lives up to its idealism, Olympics executives do consider the goal embedded in its founding documents — world peace through sports — as they conduct business, said George Hirthler, a consultant and biographer of modern Olympics founder Pierre de Coubertin.
“It’s a clear line of distinction between the Olympic movement and every other sporting movement, league, conference or team,” Hirthler said. “The Olympic movement is the only one chartered from its origins to bring the world together to use sport for friendship and peace.”
Both Hirthler and Burns said they believe the IOC’s decision will be primarily guided by athletes’ best interests. But in an example of how difficult it is for the IOC to do anything that meets all parties’ needs, the March 17 statement drew condemnation from Greek pole vaulting star Katerina Stefanidi.
“This is not about how things will be in four months. This is about how things are now,” she said on Twitter. “The IOC wants us to keep risking our health, our family’s health and public health to train every day? You are putting us in danger right now, today, not in four months.”