As the virus continues to spread at alarming speed, the world has entered a state of lockdown: we have all been told to self-isolate and stay home, a health precaution that doesn’t exempt athletes and their coaches.
But as recently as yesterday, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has remained adamant that the Games will go ahead. President of World Athletics, Sebastian Coe, said in a recent press conference, “Everything is possible and nothing is possible at the moment and I think that’s where pretty much the rest of the world is.” It’s a far cry from the sort of contingency plans the rest of us were all hoping to hear, should the Olympics not go ahead. But instead we were offered this platitude, the kind of thing you’d expect to see on a t-shirt or tea towel at your local Target.
As it stands, the IOC is committed to going ahead with the scheduled July 24 start for the Olympics. Coe defended the decision, saying: “It may be that we are confronting challenges nearer the time...but at this moment it’s a decision we don’t have to make...The overwhelming view was not that we’re saying we go ‘come what may’, that’s clearly not what’s being said, what sport is really saying I guess is that we don’t have to make a precipitous decision now with four months to go.”
But with 11,000 Olympic and 4,400 Paralympic athletes watching the escalating developments of COVID-19, along with their coaches and sports officials, local organisers, the Japanese government and ultimately, the rest of the world, it seems like the responsible thing to do would be to cancel the Games.
For athletes, the Olympics is the biggest stage in sport. To qualify is a privilege and to compete is a dream few find themselves able to achieve. Consequently, nothing is left to chance: training schedules are mapped out years in advance; qualifying times are used as part of their preparation so as to peak at the opportune moment; and control is exercised over all aspects of training, competition, recovery and diet so as to stave off injury and sickness. Because you have to remember, while it’s one thing to qualify for the Olympics in January, it’s another to make it to July with no injury, no sickness, and in the best physical fitness of your career.
It’s a tall order, and one the coronavirus pandemic has thrown completely out of sync. Due to the pandemic, a number of qualifying events for the Olympics have been cancelled while other events in sport that have been cancelled mean the world rankings of athletes are now staying stagnant – another consideration the Olympic Committee uses when assessing qualifiers.
In an interview with The Guardian, Guy Learmonth, an 800m competitor seeking Olympic selection for the event, said it would be in the best interest of athletes to postpone the Olympics. “We have no idea how bad this is going to get, and what we have seen so far might be the tip of the iceberg. Of course the IOC and the whole world wants a successful Olympics. But for that to happen I strongly believe the event needs to be postponed – unless authorities can guarantee it will be business as usual, which I don’t believe they can.”
Speaking to the publication, he added: “I’d be happy if they postponed until at least October – or maybe later to 2021 or 2022. At least that would give the athletes time to now plan, train, and more importantly, time for this virus to settle down.”
No athlete wants to hear that the Olympics have been cancelled, particularly when most professional sports leagues see amateur athletes granted just one opportunity every four years at competition. Cancellation would be devastating but while it’s plausible the Games might go ahead, with events being held in front of empty stadiums and live-streamed to viewers at home, one also can’t help but wonder if enough athletes have qualified to attend? Currently, it seems that the sporting world is simply limping towards a finish line that continues to get further and further away.
This might be the reality, but it’s hard to deny the financial implications that would arise should the Games not go ahead. The modern Olympics have been running since 1896, during which there has only been one cancellation due to the onset of WWI in 1916. Tokyo has committed $12.6 billion in spending to organise the Olympics, but according to reports from Time, a national government audit office suggests the more plausible figures are actually twice that much. And with the local organising committee budget of $5.6 billion serving as private money, the rest is all being funded by Japanese taxpayers.
The Olympics are an international event, and one of the biggest ones at that. What with the athletes descending on the Olympic village and the tourists flocking to stadiums to cheer them on, this is one economic juggernaut. The Sydney Olympics of 2000 raked in a $3 billion contribution from taxpayers. Already, local businesses have made investments in restaurants and tourist activities in preparation for the Olympics and the international crowds the Games attract. An estimated 33 million people were set to visit Tokyo in 2020 and “aggregate construction investment associated with the Olympic Games will amount to a total of 10 trillion yen (approx. $92 billion).”
The situation is messy and it seems that regardless of what path is taken – continuing as planned, postponing the Olympics or cancelling them – there will be significant consequences either way. But as Lewis Hamilton so boldly proclaimed following the late cancellation of the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne, in modern sport “cash is king”. Perhaps now it’s time we looked to our athletes. This is their event – this is the moment that daily hours of training and personal sacrifice have led them to. No one dreams of competing in front of an empty stadium, so why not have their best interest at heart?