On March 24, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe asked the International Olympic Committee to postpone the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games. The press has been of two minds as to which side instigated the idea, since a few days earlier a prominent member of the IOC publicly mentioned the possibility of postponement. The decision is one that only the IOC can make and, for a month prior to Abe’s announcement, domestic publications were filled with will-they-or-won’t-they stories as the crisis level of the coronavirus epidemic rose worldwide. Until then, the sense of urgency hadn’t been as acute in Japan. Local officials kept assuring the press there was no plan to call off or push back the games even though it wasn’t technically those officials’ call. But once Canada announced it wouldn’t be sending athletes, the pressure to do something became too much.

By no means were media organizations caught off guard, and prior to the announcement many outlets were trying to figure out what cancellation or postponement would mean to Japan economically, since, of course, money is and always has been the driving force behind Tokyo’s determination to acquire and then take advantage of the right to hold the games. Most media, including NHK, went to professor emeritus Katsuhiro Miyamoto of Kansai University, an expert on sports economics, for numbers that would put the matter into perspective. On March 19, he concluded that the “economic damage” from postponing the Olympics for one year would be about ¥640.8 billion and that canceling the games would cost about ¥4.5 trillion.

Breaking the postponement numbers down, Miyamoto pointed out that if the Olympics were put off for a year, there would be an additional cost of ¥22.5 billion in terms of extra maintenance costs for venues and the Olympic Village. Another ¥390 billion would be needed by related groups to keep their organizations in place for a year. And post-Olympics effects would take a hit of ¥218 billion as a result of a delay.

In a March 16 article, the Asahi Shimbun specified some of the peripheral economic damage by outlining the problem of securing venues in the event of postponement. Convention and exhibition facility Tokyo Big Sight is the main press and broadcast center for the Olympics, and a portion was reserved this year from May until September for that purpose. Tokyo Big Sight had planned to make up for the loss of business next year with a full schedule of events and so, if the games take place next summer, it will have to cancel those, which means paying penalties to contracted users. Seven events are supposed to take place at Makuhari Messe in Chiba Prefecture, and the organizers reserved the facility for five months this year starting April 21. During the equivalent five-month period in 2019, Makuhari Messe held 373 events, including the Summer Sonic music festival. It may have to cancel events already scheduled for next year as well. Nippon Budokan, the famous martial arts arena in central Tokyo, which is slated to host Olympic judo and karate events, has less of a problem because it doesn’t have many bookings yet for next year, but elementary and junior high schools always rely on the venue for sports competitions in the summer.

Matters become stickier with regard to broadcasting. According to sportswriter Kiyoko Taniguchi, U.S. television network NBC paid the IOC $4.38 billion for the rights to the games through 2020.

Both NBC and the IOC are insured, so if the Olympics were canceled they wouldn’t lose everything. Not counting ad revenue losses, cancellation would be better for NBC, which had the rights to the 1980 Moscow Games, too, and, when that was canceled, insurance covered 90 percent of its loss. Postponement is trickier. In the unlikely event the games take place in the fall, NBC would have to decide which is more important, the Olympics or professional and college football. And, according to the March 23 issue of the Asahi Shimbun, there’s also the European soccer championship (also postponed from this year) and the Asian Games in China next summer. The IOC, on the other hand, would be worse off with cancellation, since 80 percent of its revenue is from sales of broadcast rights, and, in turn, international sports federations rely on money from the IOC to fund their activities, even those not associated with the Olympics.

Counterintuitively, the weekly magazine Shukan Post said that there could be an economic “bubble” if the Olympics were postponed since the economy is depressed now due to the epidemic and extending the pre-Olympic period would also extend opportunities for making money. Since no other media outlet seems to be following this line of reasoning, it sounds like clickbait, but there are advantages to postponement worth mentioning, one of which was buried in a Tokyo Shimbun article on March 24 about the pandemic’s effect on the Olympics. Because so much attention in Japan has been disproportionately focused on the Olympics, not enough resources have been directed at the coronavirus emergency. Much has been said about how the government has sidestepped serious measures to “flatten the curve” of infections in order to avoid throwing cold water on preparations for the games, and, now that they’re postponed, they can more earnestly address the pandemic. Regardless of the reason for the authorities’ relative lack of testing, without the Olympics looming on the horizon more personnel will be available to do the things that are needed to prevent the kind of situations we are seeing in Europe and the United States, if it isn’t already too late.

In the Tokyo Shimbun article, veteran sportswriter Gentaro Taniguchi says he believes the measures to fight the pandemic have been inadequate owing to profit motives associated with the Olympics, so if the games are postponed because those in charge finally prioritize people’s lives, it can only send a positive message.

“It’s a chance to bring humanity back to the world of sports,” he says. “That’s a more valuable legacy than economic effectiveness.”

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