For weeks, Olympic organizers have relentlessly pushed a consistent message: The Summer Games in Tokyo will not be canceled or postponed.
On Wednesday, Olympic Minister Seiko Hashimoto called postponement “inconceivable,” pushing back on a Wall Street Journal report in which Haruyuki Takahashi, a member of the executive board for the Japanese organizing committee, suggested that the games could be delayed by one or two years if unable to be held as scheduled due to the coronavirus outbreak.
“With the star athletes in the middle of preparations for this event which happens only once every four years, a cancellation or delay to the Tokyo games is inconceivable,” Hashimoto said in a parliamentary committee. “A delay is not under consideration.”
But behind the scenes, sponsors who have pumped billions of dollars into the games have grown increasingly nervous about how the coronavirus outbreak will impact the event.
When organizers and sponsors met privately to discuss preparations last Wednesday, the companies learned there had been no decision on whether — or when — there would be any changes to the games.
“A lot of people are starting to worry, but there’s nothing much we can do,” a representative of an Olympic sponsor, who was present at the previously unreported meeting, said.
“If this continues into April, May, June, it will be an issue, but we’re still waiting to see what will happen,” added the representative, who was not authorized to speak to the media and spoke on condition of anonymity.
The meetings between the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee and “partner companies,” including sponsors, take place regularly. There were dozens of people present at the one last week.
“Nothing has been decided. On the inside, it’s a mess,” said a person briefed on the meeting, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the matter.
The final decision belongs to the powerful International Olympic Committee chief, Thomas Bach. Companies such as Coca-Cola Co., Bridgestone Corp, Canon Inc., Toyota Motor Corp. and Panasonic Corp. sponsor the games, and Japanese brands have for decades been some of the most generous.
The IOC said on Wednesday that “the preparations for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 are continuing as planned.”
Tokyo 2020 organizing committee did not respond to a request for comment.
The meeting last week brought into focus the scale of what organizers are grappling with: pressure to avoid a coronavirus crisis among 600,000 expected overseas spectators and athletes at an event that could see $3 billion in sponsorships and at least $12 billion spent on preparations evaporate.
Takahashi, one of more than two dozen members of the board of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee, said it has just started working on scenarios for how the virus could affect the games. But a sponsor representative present at the meeting last week said those plans are not being shared with the companies.
Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has staked his legacy as the longest-serving Japanese leader on staging a successful games and bringing a massive jolt, estimated at $2.3 billion, to the stagnant economy with tourism and consumer spending.
Some Olympic qualifiers and test events have been relocated or delayed. The games themselves don’t start until late July, leaving some time for the organizers to make the final call.
Neal Pilson, the former head of CBS Sports, who was involved in broadcasting rights negotiations for three Winter Olympics said he expected organizers to assess the situation by early May at the latest, when they “will have a better fix on whether the epidemic is tapering down or continuing to expand.”
Hashimoto said the end of May was a possible time frame for a decision.
Organizers have begun to modify their tone. At a news conference last week, Tokyo 2020 chief Yoshiro Mori vehemently denied that the games would be canceled, but added that planners were “listening to various opinions” and responding “flexibly because the situation changes day by day.”
Last week, Hashimoto was questioned in parliament on the clause in the contract between the IOC and the organizers in Japan that determines when the Olympic committee could terminate the games.
One of the scenarios is the inability of the host city to hold the Olympics in 2020.
The mention of the clause touched off speculation that the minister was hinting at a delay, which sponsors at last week’s meeting were told sparked the ire of the IOC.
As a result, Hashimoto called senior members of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee to explain how she was “misunderstood.”
According to the contract, the Tokyo metropolitan government, the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee and the Japanese Olympic Committee signed away any right to indemnity, damages or compensation from the IOC.
The contract says the IOC may scrap the games when safety is “seriously threatened,” among other reasons.
Those three bodies have formed a task force on the virus that consults closely with the World Health Organization, which last week warned against “false hopes” that the virus would disappear with warmer summer weather.
Many sports in Japan, such as rugby and sumo, have held recent matches without spectators.
Although keeping spectators away would cost estimated $800 million in lost ticket sales, it could still provide billions in revenue from broadcast and marketing rights.
But experts said it would still be difficult to organize safe games with thousands of athletes living in close proximity.
“In the Olympic village alone, you’re bringing together 17,000-18,000 people, they’re living in close quarters, interacting with each other, coming from all over the world,” said Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College specializing in sports economics.
A Tokyo 2020 official involved in the discussions on Olympics and the virus said that delaying the games until later in the year would be difficult.
Takahashi, of the organizing committee, said a one- or two-year delay would better accommodate professional sports schedules, which are planned years in advance.
“We need to start preparing for any possibility. If the games can’t be held in the summer, a delay of one or two years would be most feasible,” Takahashi said.
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