Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe announced Tuesday that the Summer Olympics set to be held in Tokyo in July will be postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic. The decision came after weeks of delay and mounting criticism of the International Olympic Committee for its refusal to postpone or cancel what is the world’s largest sporting event even as the global community hunkered down to grapple with the spread of the coronavirus. “In light of the current conditions and for all the athletes, we made a proposal of a postponement of about a year, to hold them securely and safely,” Abe said Tuesday.
The move to postpone, the first significant delay since World War II, appeared inevitable, but accelerated after Canada withdrew from the games over the weekend, Australia informed its potential Olympians that training under lockdown conditions would be impossible, and the U.S. urged postponement. Beyond the global health implications of trying to hold an event that gathers 11,000 athletes from more than 200 nations, most countries had not even held qualifying events to select athletes for the games. Unable to travel or gather in a meaningful way, preparing for the Olympics for those athletes on course to participate had become essentially impossible.
Canceling the games altogether, however, was always a long shot because of significant financial incentives for both the IOC and Japan to avoid canning the event. Japan has invested $10 billion in preparation for the Olympics after winning the right to host in 2013. For the IOC, which has faced blowback for the growing cost of putting on the Olympics, “abandoning the event after all that has been invested might have doomed the I.O.C., further discouraging cities from offering to host future Games,” the New York Times notes. “Without cities willing to take on the immense expense and inconvenience that comes with hosting the Games, the Olympics would cease to exist.”
Now comes the challenge of trying to find an alternative time slot to hold the games amid what will be a crowded sporting calendar over the next 18 months. Abe said the postponement would be “about one year,” which leaves some wiggle room for scheduling. Some Olympic sports already have world championship events scheduled for the summer of 2021, and a host of professional sports will be trying to cram the remainder of their postponed 2020 events in as well. The IOC could choose to move the event to the fall or winter, but that would set up potential conflicts with pro sports leagues and could prevent some of the biggest star attractions from participating. Changing seasons would also mean more competition for TV viewers. Broadcasting rights are the primary revenue stream for the IOC, amounting to nearly three-quarters of its Olympic revenue, according to the Times, of which the American broadcasting rights makes up half.