Tokyo Olympics will most likely go ahead as planned, but coronavirus could still damage attendance

As outbreaks of COVID-19 continue to spread in Japan, so too does speculation that they could force the cancellation or postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.

Experts say the games are unlikely to be called off because that would all but guarantee huge financial losses for the host city, as well as a slew of sponsors, broadcasters and other stakeholders.

But what had been mere speculation seemed to become a possibility when Dick Pound, the longest serving member of the International Olympic Committee, said Tuesday that organizers would have a three-month window to decide whether to cancel or proceed with the massive sporting event.

“It’s a big, big, big decision and you just can’t take it until you have reliable facts on which to base it,” Pound told AP in an interview, adding that whatever advice the IOC was getting at this point “doesn’t call for cancellation or postponement.”

The Olympic Games, slated to begin July 24, are expected to attract millions of visitors to Japan to witness more than 11,000 athletes from over 200 nations compete in venues scattered across the country, including Hokkaido, Fukushima and Shizuoka prefectures. The Paralympic Games are set to begin Aug. 25.

Pound said that distributing competitions across a wider selection of venues was unfavorable, and that postponement or relocation were unlikely since North American television broadcasters have tight schedules in the fall with coverage of other sports such as football, soccer, basketball, baseball and ice hockey.

As the host city, Tokyo has spent more than ¥1.37 trillion on preparations for the games, according to an annual budget plan released in January, compared with $5.5 billion (¥600 billion) by the IOC and ¥150 billion by the central government.

The IOC has been building up about $1 billion in emergency funding for unforeseen situations, Pound said. But he stressed that the games were still on.

“All indications are, at this stage, that it will be business as usual,” he said. “So keep focused on your sport and be sure that the IOC is not going to send you into a pandemic situation.”

There is much at stake if the games were to be canceled. The brunt of the economic impact would be shouldered by the IOC, television broadcasters and the hotel industry, said Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College in Massachusetts.

“If the disease starts getting wider and broader over the next three or four months, will it be safe to hold the Olympics in Japan?” Zimbalist asked rhetorically. “The answer might be no.”

The American television and radio network NBC has spent more than $12 billion on broadcasting rights for 10 Olympic Games from 2011 through 2032. NBC accounts for more than half of the money the IOC gets from television broadcasters, according to Zimbalist.

While estimates vary, most predictions say the coronavirus outbreak will peak in April. But some experts believe the influx of visitors during the 2020 Games could revive or exacerbate outbreaks.

And as the virus spreads, it becomes less clear whether athletes will be willing to take the risk.

South Africa has said it will no longer send its Olympic football team to Japan for a friendly match on March 27 because of concerns over the COVID-19 situation, the BBC reported Friday.

Meanwhile, domestic cases in Japan continue to increase. The government’s ability to contain the virus has been under heavy scrutiny since several passengers allowed to disembark a quarantined cruise ship in Yokohama later tested positive for COVID-19, while health ministry staff who worked on the ship weren’t tested at all.

Although some experts have said postponement of the 2020 Games is just as unlikely as cancellation — and would produce the same repercussions — others say the IOC might consider moving the opening ceremony back several months.

The real question is how much the risk of infection will damage attendance at the quadrennial global sporting event, said Tadamasa Fukiura, a former member of the Tokyo Organizing Committee for the 1964 Olympics and adviser to the 1998 Nagano Winter Games.

“The Olympics probably won’t be canceled unless the number of domestic cases in Japan reaches the tens of thousands,” Fukiura said “The more realistic question is whether spectators and athletes will still want to come even as the situation continues to worsen.”

Even if the outbreak subsides before the opening ceremony in July, Fukiura pointed out that the Olympic torch relay — which is set to begin on March 26 and travel through all 47 of the country’s prefectures — is at risk of being canceled. Nineteen test events are also scheduled to be held next month as Japan enters final preparations for the games.

If Tokyo 2020 were scrapped, it would be the first time in history for the Olympics to be canceled for any reason other than war.

Four years ago, many demanded the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro be canceled due to the rapid outbreak in the Brazilian capital of the Zika virus, a vector-born disease mostly transmitted through mosquito bites that caused birth defects in newborns. But the virus largely subsided before the opening ceremony, and the games were carried out as planned.

The 1916 Summer Olympics, which were supposed to be held in Berlin, were canceled due to the onset of World War I. Both the Summer and Winter Games were canceled in 1940 and 1944 as well.

The IOC, which is responsible for organizing the modern Summer and Winter Games, says it has sole authority to cancel the events.

However, it was Koichi Kido — adviser during World War II to Emperor Hirohito (known posthumously as Emperor Showa) — who announced that Japan would forfeit the opportunity to host the 1940 Summer Olympics. The Second Sino-Japanese War (1937-1945) had already begun and Japan was pouring all its resources into the necessary preparations.

The IOC then chose Helsinki to host the 1940 Games, which had been runner-up during the bidding process, but ultimately the games were canceled altogether due to the onset of WWII.

Candidates in the upcoming mayoral election in London, which hosted the 2012 Games, said Wednesday that the city was prepared to host the 2020 Games if Tokyo can’t, according to media reports.

But Tokyo is already taking steps to make sure that isn’t necessary.

As of early Wednesday evening, 32 cases of COVID-19 had been reported in Tokyo.

On Feb. 13, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe said the government would create ¥500 billion in new loans or guarantees for financially distressed small businesses, particularly hotels, through the state-run Japan Finance Corp.

The move aims to assuage unease among business owners over the possibility of prolonged outbreaks of COVID-19 and their potential impact on the economy.

“If the Olympics are canceled, hotel traffic is going to be down, business traffic is going to be down, let alone retail sales and government revenue,” Zimbalist said. “The Japanese economy is limping along and has needed a boost from the Olympics.”

Dozens of sporting events have already been canceled due to virus concerns, including qualifying events for the 2020 Games.

Earlier this month, it was announced that participation in the Tokyo Marathon set for this Sunday — which doubles as a qualifying race for the 2020 Games — would be restricted to elite athletes to reduce the risk of spreading the new virus. The move barred more than 38,000 people from running.

In January, the IOC canceled the 2020 Olympic boxing qualifying tournament for the Asian and Oceanic region originally scheduled to take place in February. The qualifier for women’s soccer, also slated for February, was moved from Wuhan — the Chinese city thought to be the origin of the novel coronavirus — to Nanjing. The World Indoor Championship and the Shanghai Grand Prix were also canceled.

Toshiro Muto, president of the Tokyo Organizing Committee, said during a meeting earlier this month with officials from the International Paralympic Committee that he was “extremely worried” COVID-19 outbreaks would pour cold water on the 2020 Games. He walked back that statement a few days later, saying cancellation or postponement of the games were out of the question.

Abe, as well as members of the IOC and the Tokyo Organizing Committee, have also been quick to shoot down any such speculation.