KUALA LUMPUR – In 1906, preparations for the 1908 Olympics were underway in Rome when Mount Vesuvius erupted and devastated Naples. The Italians, already strapped for funds to build Olympic venues, used the disaster as an excuse to back out of their commitment. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) didn’t miss a beat: In November 1906 — a mere 15 months before the opening ceremonies — London was selected as a replacement and held the games on time. Among other feats, the city built the first dedicated Olympic Stadium.
In 2020, the new coronavirus is a much graver threat to the Olympics than any volcano. Cases are spreading across Japan, qualifying events are being canceled, and countries around the world are cutting off travel to the country. With three weeks until the start of the torch relay, and five months until the opening ceremonies, the future of the 2020 Summer Games is less certain than any Olympics in decades. The IOC and Tokyo organizers recently told the news media that there is no “Plan B.” But even if Tokyo 2020 proceeds as originally planned, future games probably won’t. The coronavirus could change the Olympics in ways that may make them safer but certainly less appealing to athletes, spectators and commercial sponsors.
The Olympics have always entailed risk, mostly financial. The 1896 Athens games incurred at least a 1,000 percent cost overrun (for a final price of roughly 3 million drachmas). During these early years, risk was managed by evaluating potential liabilities and — yes — buying insurance policies. The only phenomenon powerful enough to interrupt the games outright was a world war: The 1916, 1940 and 1944 games were canceled.
Since then, the games have grown mostly unimpeded, becoming the world’s biggest, most complex and most expensive sporting event. Despite decades of promises that the games would be scaled back, and alleged reforms to produce that result, there’s little evidence of progress in reducing the size or risk. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics cost $282 million; costs associated with the 2020 edition may exceed $28 billion.
To manage the challenges of a metastasizing Olympics, organizers have elevated risk management to be the organizing principle in games planning. Candidate cities are evaluated, in part, on their capabilities to handle emergencies. Later, organizers list, evaluate and game out potential scenarios for host cities. Some of these scenarios are manageable; the organizers of the 2018 Winter Games in Pyeongchang, South Korea, fended off a cyberattack in part because it was a possibility that many feared and expected.
In one sense, disease outbreaks are just another manageable, albeit dangerous, risk. The 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City experienced a flu outbreak; measles were imported during the 2010 Vancouver Winter Games; norovirus swept through Pyeongchang. Tokyo 2020’s organizers, too, have prepared for a range of risks, including an earthquake (judged the greatest threat), terrorism, and a range of endemic and imported known diseases, including measles, rubella, dengue and sexually transmitted infections. None are welcome, but if handled properly — and protocols exist — they wouldn’t derail the games.
An emergent pandemic, however, presents a different set of issues. Unlike an outbreak of flu or measles, a pandemic by its very definition isn’t just local. If Japan is successful in containing the coronavirus (and it is a long way from that), other countries might not be — at least, not in time for July’s opening ceremonies. Regional outbreaks are already interfering with training and Olympic qualification events; they’ll also have the knock-on effect of deterring travel by spectators and some commercial partners. Even if a replacement site existed for the 2020 games, it would face the same challenges as Tokyo. There is no repeating 1908 in 2020; the games are just too complex, expensive and global.
This probably won’t be the last time that the Olympics face this scenario. For years, scientists have observed that pandemics are growing with frequency. It was only a matter of time before one threatened to cancel the games (in fact, zika virus nearly derailed the 2016 Rio Games, and SARS hung over Athens 2004).
Now that it’s happened, the lack of a Plan B doesn’t just pose problems for Tokyo 2020. It calls into question the economic, political and athletic viability of the games in their current form. Already, the IOC struggles to find cities willing to compete for the right to spend billions hosting the games. Tokyo’s troubles will make that quest even harder. Likewise, marketing and broadcast partners will face questions about the value of their years-long, multimillion- and billion-dollar investments in a vulnerable short-term event.
That doesn’t mean the end of the Olympics, of course. But it does mean that a complex global event with multiple vulnerabilities must become less centralized and more risk-averse. There are several ways the IOC might go about doing this, all with considerable drawbacks. The committee could select two or three geographically diverse cities to share the games in any year, thereby reducing the risks associated with a single host. Similarly, the IOC could designate two or three permanent, alternating host cities that — among other duties — might serve as backups in case of a disaster (though that’s unlikely to be of much help in a global pandemic).
Or, most radically of all, the IOC might finally concede that the modern Olympics are mainly a television event — and eliminate or significantly reduce the number of fans in the stands. This latter approach is under serious consideration for some 2020 qualification events. Already, Japan will hold a spectator-less sumo tournament this month — a first since World War II.
Obviously, none of these scenarios will deliver the experiences that have made the Olympics so valuable to athletes, commercial sponsors, spectators and host cities over the decades. Will sponsors pay millions to be associated with events held in mostly empty venues? These changes might even make the games more expensive to hold while doing little to protect from a global pandemic. But if the games are to persist as a safe experience for future spectators and athletes, a radical rethinking of how they are held is now the most pressing item on the IOC’s agenda.
Adam Minter is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist based in Kuala Lumpur.
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