Prime Minister Shinzo Abe bit the bullet last week and decided, after consultations with the International Olympic Committee to pull the plug on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics. The games have been postponed, not canceled; their eventual date has not yet been decided and depends, primarily, on when the new coronavirus outbreak is under control. If, as anticipated, they are held next year, the 2021 Tokyo Summer Olympics will be the most important and most celebrated Olympic Games ever.
Financial considerations reportedly weighed heavily on the decision, with the Japanese hosts and the IOC worried that a unilateral move would risk billions of dollars in liabilities falling on the deciding party. Both had to act together to ensure that neither would get the blame.
Both will still pay a high price for delay. The cost of the games is an exercise in accounting legerdemain. The official cost is said to be ¥ 1.35 trillion, but reports suggest that national government outlays, supposedly just 10 percent of the total, are actually 10 times the budgeted amount. One audit put the projected cost at $25 billion, or twice the original budget.
Most of the costs are sunk and have already provided their GDP boost; delay doesn’t save any money. On the contrary, postponing the event will incur significant additional costs. The most obvious of these is the lost revenue as millions of visitors cancel their trips, a sum estimated at ¥ 240 billion .
There are also substantial costs associated with rescheduling the games. Venues for events, the media headquarters (a huge undertaking), more than 45,000 hotel rooms, and all sorts of equipment must be rescheduled and retained. The athletes’ village — more than 5,000 apartments that would house some 15,000 athletes and staff — was supposed to be sold to the public after the games; those deals are now on hold. The organizers put the cost of delay at $2.7 billion, while another estimate reached $5.7 billion.
Another factor weighing on deliberations over the fate of the games were the political legacies of Abe and IOC President Thomas Bach. Abe has made the games the capstone of his long-running tenure as prime minister; his speech to open the Diet this year showcased the 2020 Olympics, using it as the symbol of the revitalization of Japan, of national unity and pride as did the 1964 Tokyo Games. A successful Olympics would validate the Abe program and allow him to leave office to genuine cheers.
Bach, too, saw a successful games as the springboard to his re-election in 2021 to a second eight-year term as president. The future legacy of each man is now in jeopardy but both can be revived if the delayed games come off without a hitch.
The final factor in the decision to postpone the games, which should have been No. 1, was the health and safety of the 11,000 athletes from 206 countries that would have been competing. The joint statement from the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee and the IOC put that concern first, noting that “The Games … must be rescheduled to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021, to safeguard the health of the athletes, everybody involved in the Olympic Games and the international community.”
The delays in announcing a delay undercut that concern, however: It should have been clear already that uncertainty about the games, along with lock-down protocols being enforced by governments around the world, made it impossible for athletes to train and be ready to compete at their best. And only weeks earlier Bach had told athletes to keep training “with great confidence and with full steam.”
It looks as though athletes ultimately forced the decision. Days before the official announcement, Canada and Australia said they would not send representatives to the Olympics without a delay, Poland and Germany called for a delay, and when the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee surveyed its athletes, nearly 70 percent of respondents said they didn’t think the games would be fair if held in July.
That is true. But rescheduling the games will be unfair to some of those athletes as well. The IOC announced that the 6,200 athletes who had already qualified for the games will keep their spots. That’s a little more than half the total; the rest still have to fight for places, and the delay will likely change outcomes — both in qualifying and in results when the games are finally held.
Training regimes are designed to peak at specific times. It is impossible to sustain that level of performance and equally hard to lower and then ramp it back up when the time frame is unknown; training at this level of competition has time horizons of years. Those difficulties are compounded by the emotional and economic uncertainties created by the pandemic. Many athletes are amateurs who have a hard time getting financial support in the best of times.
Then, there is the sheer passage of time. Some athletes are at their prime and even a delay of just months will prove too much for their bodies; at the same time, younger athletes may find themselves even more ready to compete.
Olympic outcomes are determined by thousandths of a second or centimeters in distance; even a difference of months can profoundly alter an athletes’ performance. One authoritative analysis estimated that with a one-year postponement around 50 percent to 60 percent of the athletes would still be able to qualify. Delay will cost about 40 percent of the remaining 40 percent their only chance at an Olympic appearance; the impact on final outcomes will never be known.
If the Olympics are held next year — a big “if” given the many unknowns — then they could and should be the greatest games ever. The 2021 games will be, as the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee and the IOC declared in the announcement of the delay, “a beacon of hope to the world during these troubled times” and the Olympic flame “the light at the end of the tunnel in which the world finds itself.”
They would release pent-up emotions, enthusiasms and energies of athletes and spectators alike, and celebrate the victory over a devastating adversary that makes no distinction between nation, color, creed or religion. If ever a moment were to embody the Olympic ideal of a world united in common pursuits, then that would be it.
But such a moment also requires adaptation by the Japanese organizing committee. In every facet, expression and celebration, the 2021 games must be a truly global event. The organizers should figure out how to undercut the nationalism that has dominated the Olympics.
Traditionally, the opening ceremonies are a distinctly national celebration heralding the wonders and history of the host country. Next year’s games should break with that tradition and offer a more universal and inclusive message.
The focus should be on individual achievement or the global victory over this horrific disease. The 2021 Olympic Games should be a celebration of a world that overcomes petty nationalisms, rather than one that reinforces them. If that can happen, then these will be the greatest games ever.
Brad Glosserman is deputy director of and visiting professor at the Center for Rule Making Strategies at Tama University as well as senior advisor (nonresident) at Pacific Forum. He is the author of “Peak Japan: The End of Great Ambitions.”