By Michael Pavitt
Right now, this is the new normal. We find ourselves glued to news channels indoors, waiting for the now daily broadcasts and measures from politicians that just days ago were unthinkable, as death tolls rise and economies collapse amid the coronavirus pandemic.
There is uncertainty over the next time it will be considered safe to visit older relatives, meet up with friends or even leave your house in several countries.
The certainties offered by the everyday commute to work and the set timeframe for students to take their exams have been swept from under our feet.
Debate over the fate of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games is some way down the list of priorities right now, but as it stands the largest global sporting event is honing into view amidst the biggest global health crisis of our time.
Health will be the deciding factor in whether the Games will open as planned on July 24, which appears increasingly unlikely with each passing day.
The countdown to Tokyo 2020 has become one of anxiety rather than expectancy.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has been right to hold fire on making a final decision on the future of the Games, but its communication and tone at a time of uncertainty has been profoundly lacking.
Controlled statements about positive calls with athlete representatives and National Olympic Committees have presented the IOC as an organisation attempting to appear in control of a situation, only for athletes and NOCs to immediately begin expressing concerns.
The IOC’s initial certainty that the Games would take place as planned has been a jarring contrast to real-world events, where nobody is certain about anything right now.
There is no doubt that the IOC sport department will be working overtime on devising and approving as fair qualification systems as possible. Yet the urge to keep training at “full steam” has understandably angered athletes, who have seen their training disrupted and qualification pathways disappear with the sporting calendar.
IOC President Thomas Bach has been right to delay a decision but has been lacking on communication ©Getty Images
A current IOC member admitted to me this week that the organisation had got off to a slow start in communicating what it was considering, adding that “as you increase certainty, you get less speculation”. A former IOC member, Richard Peterkin, agreed with the Norwegian Olympic Committee’s call that “insight on central milestones” was required to provide greater assurance on the path to a final decision.
It was only after statements from the likes of IOC Athletes’ Commission member Hayley Wickenheiser, who claimed the IOC not considering a postponement or cancellation was “insensitive and irresponsible”, did the tone change.
IOC President Thomas Bach has since acknowledged the organisation is considering alternative plans, before finally highlighting the complications of a potential postponement.
Defiance and nuance are typical traits of Bach, yet this situation has required clarity and transparency.
The IOC has been unfortunate with the timing and scale of this crisis, no doubt. The four-month countdown has offered both a shred of hope the pandemic could be brought under control and allow plan A to proceed, leaving an enormous decision for the IOC to take. Contrast this to say UEFA, where the halting of European domestic leagues forced its hand.
A series of postponements of competitions until either later this year or next year has left the IOC in the spotlight as the last large-scale event left standing, increasing both the expectancy of a move and painting the IOC as out of touch with public opinion.
This is unfair.
Bach is correct to point out that postponing an Olympic Games is not as straightforward an undertaking as moving a single-sport World or European Championships, although he should have outlined this far sooner.
The idea of postponing an Olympic Games was considered more or less impossible just weeks ago, but, we live in an time where impossible scenarios are being made possible.
The IOC repeatedly pledges that “athletes are at the centre of the Games”, which would seemingly make it irresponsible for the IOC not to postpone given their increased calls.
Yet the IOC also repeatedly refers to “host city partners”, which would make it irresponsible to postpone the Games without having ironed out the details of the way forward with Tokyo.
“The first thing you would have to do would be to sit down with the Japanese Government and Tokyo organisers,” an IOC member told me this week regarding the prospect of a postponement.
“If we were trying to postpone a year or several months, will we have access to all the facilities which are all planned for after Games use? What about all of the hotels, the tickets?
“This would be a very complicated business.”
The Athletes’ Village and hotels for the IOC, broadcasters and media have been tied down years in advance. In short, the IOC would have to ensure there could be an Olympic Games in 2021, before making any form of announcement on 2020.
There are the costs associated with carrying out such an unprecedented endeavour, from securing competition and training venues, to revising plans and running a large Organising Committee for an additional year.
The IOC would not want to force Tokyo 2020 and the Japanese Government to do that lightly.
IOC Coordination Commission chairman John Coates has found new ways to tell organisers how they are better prepared than any previous host city on each visit, before instructing Tokyo 2020 to reduce the costs with public pressure over finances crushing numerous Olympic bids in recent years.
It is one of the reasons why an outright cancellation is not on the table. What message would it have sent to walk away after the Japanese Government has invested billions?
Clearly, it is also a reason why the Japanese Government could justify a postponement in the current climate.
Tokyo 2020 is already being overshadowed with Torch Relay crowds viewed as a health risk rather than a display of excitement ©Getty Images
The other concern over a postponement centres around the calendar itself, which in this solar system gravitates around the Summer Olympics on a four-year cycle. If you wake up and the sun is in a completely different place, there are going to be consequences.
With the World Athletics and Aquatics Championships scheduled to overlap with a potential Tokyo 2021 Olympics this would quite clearly need to be an issue smoothed over. After all, World Championships are lucrative for athletes and organisers.
The clash is among the list of concerns over who might lose out from a potential postponement, including broadcasters and sponsors.
Perhaps the question is, who is winning now?
An increasingly vocal group of athletes do not seem to think they are succeeding in this crisis, even though some could benefit should the IOC’s plan A go ahead.
Can sponsors really maximise the benefit of their investment in the middle of a pandemic? With most Olympic Partners sponsors tied down for the foreseeable and broadcasters such as NBC secured through to 2032, there surely is enough time down the line for the IOC to sweeten any potential discomfort at a postponement.
Tokyo 2020 certainly is not winning now, with long-term planning overshadowed by questions over the fate of the Games.
The Olympic Torch itself has become increasingly viewed as a health risk, given photos of vast numbers of people surrounding the Olympic Flame in the current climate, rather than a cause of excitement and expectation.
This threatens to become a focus rather than Japan’s desire to use the Torch Relay to highlight reconstruction efforts post the Great East Japan Earthquake.
Should the IOC take the plunge in the coming days and announce a delay, the organisation would have undoubtedly taken a painful decision. And should it come, hopefully the IOC will strike a better tone than it has done in recent days.
About the Author
Michael Pavitt is a Senior reporter with ‘insidethegames.biz’ since 2015, Pavitt has covered a variety of international multi-sport events, including the Baku 2015 European Games, the Toronto 2015 Pan American Games, Sapporo 2017 Asian Winter Games and Taipei 2017 Summer Universiade. He also reported on the UCI Presidential election in Bergen in 2017, as well as attending the IOC Session in Lima and three ANOC General Assemblies.
By Michael Pavitt