Will the Olympics be Postponed? Mixed Messages Between Organizers and IOC Over Tokyo 2020 Games Amid Coronavirus Fears

The fate of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics remains shrouded in uncertainty, amid rising fears over coronavirus and mixed messages from organizers.

The games are scheduled to be held in Tokyo between July 24 and August 9 but their fate appears increasingly in doubt as the world battles to contain COVID-19.

On Tuesday, a member of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee's executive board suggested the Games could be postponed.

Haruyuki Takahashi told The Wall Street Journal that delaying the start of the Olympics would be a better option than canceling them or having the events go ahead behind closed doors.

"I don't think the Games could be canceled. It'd be a delay," Takahashi was quoted as saying. "The International Olympic Committee would be in trouble if there's a cancellation. American TV rights alone provide them with a huge amount."

Takahashi's comments were in stark contrast to the position of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach, who last week indicated the Games would go ahead as planned and urged athletes to prepare as normal.

On Wednesday, Tokyo 2020 organizing committee told Newsweek it had "sought clarification" with Takahashi and that he had "inadvertently given his personal opinion in response to a hypothetical question."

The organizers doubled down on the IOC's stance, insisting neither canceling the Games nor postponing them was on the cards.

"Mr. Takahashi apologised for the problems these comments caused for the Organizing Committee," the committee added.

"As IOC President Bach stated the other day, neither the IOC nor the Organising Committee are considering postponing or cancelling the Tokyo 2020 Games, and we are proceeding with our preparations for a safe and secure Games opening on 24 July 2020 as planned."

However, on the same day, Japanese news agency Kyodo News reported Takahashi planned to ask organizers to consider the possibility of postponing the games, when the organizing committee meets next month.

"In light of the reality, we have to respond accordingly," he was quoted as saying.

Japan's Olympic minister Seiko Hashimoto, however, called the possibility of postponing the games "inconceivable" and ruled out the option.

"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," she told a parliamentary committee on Wednesday.

"A delay is not under consideration."

Tokyo 2020 Olympics, Coronavirus, COVID-19
A man wearing a face mask walks in the tunnel of a metro station with the board of the official 2020 Summer Olympics advertisement in Tokyo on March 11. Japan and Olympic organisers are at pains to insist this summer's Games in Tokyo are on, despite the new coronavirus outbreak. Philip Fong/AFP/Getty

As recently as a week ago, Hashimoto had suggested the Games could be postponed but would have to be held before the end of the year.

The so-called "Home City Contract" the Olympics governing body, the Japanese Olympic Committee and the city of Tokyo signed in 2013 stipulates that the IOC can cancel the Games, should it see fit to proceed.

"The IOC has the right to cancel the games only if they are not held during 2020," Hashimoto told parliament on March 3.

"This can be interpreted to mean the games can be postponed as long as they are held during the calendar year. We are doing all we can to ensure that the games go ahead as planned."

Last month, the IOC told Newsweek it remained hopeful the Games would go ahead as planned.

"The preparations for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 continue as planned," it said in a statement. "Countermeasures against infectious diseases constitute an important part of Tokyo 2020's plans to host a safe and secure Games.

The Olympics governing body reiterated its stance when Newsweek contacted it on Wednesday.

At the time of writing, Japan had reported more than 580 cases of coronavirus with 12 deaths and over 100 people recovered, according to Johns Hopkins University, which has been tracking the outbreak using combined data sources.

As this chart provided by Statista shows, the virus has spread to more than 100 countries and over 4,300 people have died since the outbreak of coronavirus began in Wuhan, a city located in China's central Hubei province, late last year. There are over 120,000 cases globally, with almost 66,000 recovered.

COVID-19, Coronavirus, Statista
A chart showing the areas affected by COVID-19 across the world as of March 11. Statista

With the exception of the two world wars, the Olympics have never been canceled since they began in their modern guise in 1896.

Should the Tokyo Olympics be postponed or called off altogether, organizers would face a hefty financial hit. According to official figures, Japan has committed 1.45 trillion yen ($13.4 billion) to organizing the Olympics, with $277 million alone spent on building a new Olympic Stadium in Tokyo.

The picture for broadcasters and sponsors would be similarly bleak, as Takahashi acknowledged in his interview with The Wall Street Journal.

"The International Olympic Committee would be in trouble if there's a cancellation," he said.

"American TV rights alone provide them with a huge amount."

According to figures published by the Associated Press, approximately 73 percent of the IOC's $5.7 billion income in the current four-year cycle derives from TV revenue.

NBC is responsible for approximately 50 percent of the figure.

The Comcast-owned network paid a total of $4.38 billion for the rights to the next four Olympics—winter and summer—before investing a further $7.7 billion three years later to purchase the rights to another six editions of the Games.

Speaking last week at the Morgan Stanley Investor Conference, chairman and chief executive Brian Roberts admitted canceling the Olympics would cost the company the ad-driven profit, which stood at approximately $250 million for the Rio Olympics four years ago.

Meanwhile, Reuters reported on Wednesday that official sponsors made their concerns clear when they met Tokyo 2020 organizers.

"Nothing has been decided. On the inside, it's a mess," the news agency quoted a person briefed on the meeting as saying.