A month ago, the Olympics were postponed for the first time in history as the COVID-19 pandemic forced the world and its athletes into quarantine.
Now, with less than 15 months until the rescheduled opening of the Tokyo Games next summer, organizers are scrambling to rework their 2020 plans into a similar schedule for 2021.
If the games can be held at all, that is.
A successful staging still hinges on many factors, including whether or not the threat of the virus will be sufficiently abated with enough time left for athletes to resume their training and qualify ahead of the games. With most of the sports world on hold, a question mark remains over the international calendar.
The one-year delay of the 2020 Summer Games was officially agreed to on March 24 by Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach. The new schedule — with the Olympics held from July 23 to Aug. 8, 2021, and the Paralympics from Aug. 24 to Sept. 5 — was announced a week later.
A week after that, Abe declared a state of emergency for Tokyo and other prefectures. That effectively multiplied the challenges that face the Tokyo Organising Committee, which is now working through the logistical nightmare mainly from home.
Organizing staff still get sent out, however, for missions deemed essential tasks, such as negotiating with venue operators to secure their facilities' availability — an undertaking organizers are seeking to achieve at any cost to limit major disruptions to the competition schedule.
One of the biggest challenges for the host nation is the burden of additional costs generated by the postponement.
Amid fears of a serious recession in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak, Tokyo is facing several hundred billion yen in additional costs — a prospect sure to stoke negative public opinion at a critical time.
Even if the local organizing committee manages to increase its revenue by extending contracts with sponsors and employing other financial maneuvers, public funds will likely be used to defray some costs such as fees for re-securing venues, renewing contracts of organizing committee personnel and rearranging hotel accommodations for those involved with the games.
Organizers are working to assess the total amount, but Tokyo Organising Committee CEO Toshiro Muto admitted "it is not easy" with negotiations still ongoing. At present, the extra costs are estimated to be around ¥300 billion, though sources close to the matter have said the additional burden could rise to somewhere between ¥500 billion and ¥600 billion.
There seems to be confusion as to just who will be saddled with the majority of the damages. The IOC wrote on its website April 20 that Abe had committed Japan to absorb its share of the additional costs — a statement that was met with immediate opposition from Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga and later deleted at the request of the Tokyo Organising Committee.
As the organizers' private funding is limited, it was decided during the bid stage that Tokyo would be first in line to cover expenses should the organizing committee go into the red. Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said earlier in April the parties were "looking into how the Japanese government, Tokyo Metropolitan Government and organizers will handle the added cost."
The latest budget for the Tokyo Games is ¥1.35 trillion. Tokyo is expected to cover ¥597 billion of the total cost, plus an additional ¥777 billion in "related expenses" such as making facilities barrier-free. This additional public spending will likely face opposition from taxpayers.
"The taxpayers will require clear explanations," Muto said.
That's also not to mention the financial downturn looming for national Olympic committees and international federations, with major sources of revenue cut off by the postponement of competitions worldwide. Athletes, too, are suffering without access to facilities and equipment needed for training.
The IOC has revealed it amended and extended the Olympic qualification process, as only around 57 percent of the qualification places have been secured.
But the larger question still looms: Will it be safe enough by next summer to hold the Tokyo Games?
John Coates, head of the games' coordination commission, said in a virtual news conference earlier this month that he has "good faith in the Japanese measures" being taken against the virus and would continue to take guidance from the World Health Organization as the situation develops, but conceded it was "too early to say" if the outbreak could further impact the games.
Less than a week later, the organizing committee revealed that one of its staff members, still working at the headquarters in the Harumi district of the capital, had tested positive for the new coronavirus, which causes COVID-19. Around 10 percent of the committee's 3,800 members are working from the office.
The central government, Tokyo Metropolitan Government, organizing committee and IOC have all agreed the games will not be canceled. Mori, who had insisted the games' schedule would not change right up until the March 24 announcement, has doubled down on next year's dates, saying, "We have no choice but to meet the challenge in one year with unwavering determination."
But Naofumi Masumoto, a visiting professor at Tokyo Metropolitan University who specializes in the Olympics, said it would take 12 to 18 months to develop a coronavirus vaccine, and speculates it will still be difficult to hold the games next summer.
"I think there is a chance of another postponement to the following autumn (in 2021), but it can't be delayed until 2022 — when the Beijing Winter Olympics will be held — so if it's not possible in the autumn the games may be canceled," Masumoto said.
"At that point the entire world will be gripped by hardship, and it won't be the time for sports. The reason for the cancellation of previous Olympics was war. It can be said that this situation is just as serious."
"It's unfortunate we haven't seen any contributions so far on countermeasures against the new coronavirus from the International Olympic Committee, an advocate of promoting peace," he added. "Being healthy is a basic premise of human life — for the sake of achieving peace, I hope to see them make an effort to support medical equipment in developing countries."
The Olympics have been cancelled three times in the past, all due to war. It remains to be seen if the Tokyo Olympic flame can serve as the "light at the end of the tunnel," as organizers hope.
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