Japan has unwittingly made history after Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s announcement that the Tokyo 2020 Games would become the first Olympics ever to be postponed.
The announcement Tuesday of a one-year deferral for the quadrennial sporting event amid the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic marks the beginning of a fresh chapter in what had already seemed an uphill battle for Japan. In the coming weeks and months, the country will essentially start from scratch as it renegotiates an intricate web of sponsorship deals, venue reservations and other contracts before restarting preparations to hold the games next year.
Whether the nation is able to deliver this massive undertaking — and how — could reverberate through future Olympic and Paralympic Games as either a success story or a cautionary tale.
“If the outcome is bad, countries might avoid or reject the chance to host the games for fear of the risk and financial burden,” said Katsuhiro Miyamoto, professor emeritus at Kansai University. “This is a defining time for the history and future of the Olympics.”
The Olympic and Paralympic Games have overcome boycotts, doping scandals, the infamous Munich massacre in 1972 and the Zika virus in 2016. Though the games have been canceled on three occasions due to war — in 1916, 1940 and 1944 — the Tokyo Summer Olympics is the first to be delayed.
The unprecedented decision was announced by the prime minister following a late-night phone call with Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, as well as Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike, Olympic minister Seiko Hashimoto and Yoshiro Mori, president of the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee, among others.
Between them, an agreement was reached to delay the games and hold them in “a complete form” by the summer of 2021 “at the latest.” They would, however, still be called the Tokyo 2020 Games, according to Koike. Details, however, are yet to be worked out.
On Wednesday, Abe spoke over the phone with U.S. President Donald Trump, who labeled the decision “wise and great.” Earlier this month, Trump had advocated for the 2020 Games’ postponement. According to Miyamoto, that is likely to have left a strong impression on Abe, who is one of the few world leaders to have cultivated close ties with the mercurial U.S. president.
A one-year postponement of the Tokyo Games will cost Japan more than ¥680 billion, according to Miyamoto’s research. But Toshiro Nagahama, chief economist at the Dai-ichi Life Research Institute, said it will cost the country upwards of ¥3 trillion. And while estimates vary, it’s clear that Japan — as well as countless organizing bodies, sponsors, athletes and other stakeholders — will take a significant economic hit.
While unforeseen challenges and costs are also likely to emerge in the coming months, experts say three issues are paramount: Will new athletes be chosen to compete next year, who will bear the financial burden — the IOC or the citizens of Japan — and how will room be made for the Tokyo Games in what is an already packed calendar for international sport.
In any case, there is now an Olympic-sized hole in Japan’s calendar, leaving the nation wondering what comes next after weeks of speculation over the fate of the event.
“(Organizers) are going to have to deal with months upon months of logistical headaches as a global pandemic continues to ravage the Earth,” said freelance sports journalist Aaron Bauer. “They’re going to have to find the best compromise that works.”
The decision came just five months after Japan was the toast of the international sporting world following its successful hosting of the 2019 Rugby World Cup — an event touted by World Rugby Chairman Bill Beaumont as the greatest-ever edition of the world’s third-largest sporting event.
The cup, which saw over 400,000 foreign rugby fans descend on sites across the country over the course of six weeks, was considered a successful test not only of improvements to the national tourism infrastructure, but also the nation’s enthusiasm for large-scale international sporting events as the clock ticked closer to the planned July 2020 start of the games.
Although segments of the population had been lukewarm at best toward the 2020 Olympics — some were turned off by the ballooning costs of the new National Stadium, while others were frustrated by how the investment appeared to come at the expense of the Tohoku region’s recovery in the wake of the March 2011 disasters — strong demand for tickets both domestically and abroad had indicated that the Tokyo Games were on track to be a modern spectacle.
Now, following the relatively sudden decision to postpone, an army of lawyers representing an even larger number of stakeholders will sit down to hash out what comes next.
Beyond coping with the immediate economic impact of postponing, Japan and the IOC will have to tackle issues ranging from securing venues and accommodations to figuring out how best to respond to the needs of more than 11,000 athletes and millions of fans who were expected to arrive in Tokyo this summer.
This will certainly be a daunting task to see through in a year or less — while also working to prevent the virus epidemic from spiraling out of control inside Japan.
“Few events in the world are as large as the modern Olympic Games,” Bauer said. “There’s an infinite number of suppliers, contracts, costs, buildings that they need to reserve. … There’s a reason they take seven years to organize.”
Still, while criticism of the Japanese government’s efforts to contain the novel coronavirus suggests the low volume of testing may be masking the true severity of the epidemic, organizers can take solace in the reality that Tokyo 2020 fell victim to a crisis of global proportions.
That is the narrative Prime Minister Abe, who has staked his legacy on the success of the Tokyo Games, is likely to put forth as Japan reacts to the temporary loss of the most prestigious competition in the world of international sports.
Abe, along with IOC chief Bach, will now look to reshape the perception of Tokyo 2020 as not only the “Reconstruction Olympics” invoking the Tohoku region, but also as the “Recovery Olympics,” positioning these games as a celebration of humanity’s endurance in the face of a pandemic that has already killed tens of thousands and brought much of the global economy to a standstill.
“We don’t know what’s going to happen next month, let alone next year,” Bauer said. “With that moving target, trying to organize an event on the fly is going to be incredibly difficult.”