Despite protests from the public, scepticism from stakeholders and an ongoing state of emergency in Tokyo, organisers have repeatedly stated that the Olympics will still go ahead later this year.
Having already been postponed by a year due to Covid, the 2020 Summer Olympic Games are scheduled to take place in Tokyo between 23 July and 8 August 2021. The Paralympic Games are between 24 August and 5 September.
But Japan is dealing with a fourth wave of coronavirus cases, with 10 areas of the country under a state of emergency. Despite this, the country and the International Olympic Committee, have maintained that the Olympics are to move ahead as scheduled.
To try and reassure the public, Tokyo 2020 organisers have said visiting athletes and media crews will be monitored via GPS for the first 14 days of their stay to ensure they do not stray from itineraries.
However, the level of surveillance drew criticism, while some social media users also said the measure could be rendered ineffective if people simply leave their smartphones at the hotel.
A recent poll in the leading Asahi Shimbun newspaper suggested more than 80% of the population want the Games either cancelled or postponed. Several towns set to host the athletes have reportedly pulled out over fears it could spread Covid and put pressure on the healthcare system. Japan’s most senior medical adviser said that hosting the Olympics during a pandemic was “not normal”.
In addition it has been reported that 10,000 volunteers who had signed up to work at the Olympics have pulled out, citing Coronavirus fears as the main reason.
Japan only began vaccinating people in February, later than most other developed nations. As of May 10, it had administered 4.4 million vaccine doses to its population of 126 million people. In Tokyo and Osaka, the two cities hit hardest by the surge, authorities hope over-65s will be fully vaccinated by the end of July.
The challenges of large scale events
Vaccine rollout may have increased, but gathering the world’s best athletes for the globe’s biggest sporting event will prove a huge logistical challenge.
The Olympics involve 33 competitions and 339 events, held across 42 venues. The Paralympics feature 539 events, across 22 sports, at 21 venues. Most are taking place in the Greater Tokyo area. Some football games and the marathon are in Sapporo in Hokkaido, which also has a state of emergency.
Hosting such a large scale event drawing in people from all over the world might seem an irresponsible action in the middle of a global pandemic. There is also no requirement for athletes to be vaccinated, although most are expected to be.
The World Players Association – which represents 85,000 athletes in over 60 countries – said The International Olympic Committee (IOC) must do more to ensure athletes’ safety, with stricter physical distancing and more rigorous testing.
However, there is a huge amount of enthusiasm to get events back up and running, from within the industry. “We are raring to go and everything is in place to bring large scale events back to people who have been deprived of them since the start of the pandemic” says Alan Jenkins of Black Robin Exhibits, an exhibition stand design and build contractor. The return of large scale events will be a welcome sign of life tentatively returning to normal. But the safety of those taking part has to be paramount.
So, could the Games be cancelled?
The contract between the IOC and host city Tokyo makes it clear only the IOC can cancel the event. One clause states that the IOC can terminate the contract if it has “reasonable grounds to believe” that “the safety of participants in the Games would be seriously threatened or jeopardized” by attending.
The question is: Legally speaking, does the pandemic at this stage represent a serious threat to participants’ safety?
No one knows for sure, according to Jeffrey Benz, former general counsel of the US Olympic Committee, points out that the IOC is not alone in weighing this kind of choice because of Covid-19. In 2020, he adds, “everyone started looking at their contracts and whether they had provisions that governed force majeure that would govern pandemics. A lot of people discovered that they didn’t. The general rule is, you have to be very specific about identifying the kinds of things that would give you an excuse to not perform your contract.”
The IOC is thought to make around 70% of its money from broadcast rights, and 18% from sponsorship. If the Games don’t go ahead, it could severely damage its finances, and the future of the Olympics.
Given that the IOC has repeatedly insisted the Games can go ahead safely, even under a state of emergency, it seems there’s little chance it will pull the plug.
If Tokyo was to break the contract and cancel, the risks and losses would fall on the Japanese side. The budget for Tokyo 2020 was set at $12.6bn (£8.9bn), although it’s been reported that the actual cost could be double that. Even though the Olympics are heavily insured, losses would still be high.
Tokyo 2020 president Seiko Hashimoto is “100%” certain the Olympics will go ahead, but warned the Games “must be prepared” to proceed without spectators in the event of a coronavirus outbreak.
What about the safety of participants?
Japan has closed its borders to foreign visitors and it is yet to be decided whether locals will be able to attend the Games. Hashimoto said it was a “very painful decision” to have no overseas spectators present, but one necessary to ensure “a safe and secure Games”.
As difficult a decision as this is for IOC and Japanese officials, the people who could suffer the most are the athletes caught in the middle. Japan’s biggest sports star, tennis player Naomi Osaka, told the BBC she is “not really sure” the games should go ahead because “if people aren’t healthy, and if they’re not feeling safe, then it’s definitely a really big cause for concern.” Fellow tennis player Roger Federer recently told Swiss television station Leman Bleu that “what the athletes need is a decision: is it going to happen or is it not going to happen?”
The British government has assured GB athletes they will be jabbed in time for Tokyo 2021 after taking advantage of the special deal struck between the Olympics and Pfizer-BioNTech.
Vaccinations will not exempt Team GB from regular Covid-19 testing at the Games. All participants will be required to record two negative tests before arriving in Japan, they will not be allowed to use public transport, and they can only eat in designated areas, such as in their hotel restaurant, venues and their rooms.
Athletes will also need to wear masks within venues almost at all times, including during medal ceremonies. About 95 per cent of Japan’s 600 Olympic athletes and 1,000 support staff are expected to be vaccinated for Covid-19 in time for the Games.
One thing is for certain, is that the IOC finds itself in a totally unprecedented situation and it will be a Games like no other.
Written by Caroline Grey, a Content Writer with a wide variety of experience across a number of different industry sectors.