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All You Need to Know About the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo

May 31, 2021 10:46 AM 5 min read

Come July, the 2020 Summer Olympics will be in full swing.

The Games, originally scheduled for July 2020, were postponed by a year due to the coronavirus pandemic. The new dates are July 23rd to August 8th, with the Paralympics due from August 24th to September 5th.

The Pandemic Tournament

The 2020 Games - the 32nd iteration - were already going to be unique. Tokyo would be the first Asian city to host the Summer Olympics twice. And a slew of new competitions are expected to make their debut including madison cycling, karate, sport climbing, surfing and skateboarding.

But COVID-19 has ensured that the Tokyo Games will be historic. They marked the first Games to be postponed in history. The tournament has been cancelled thrice before - 1916, 1940 and 1944, all due to the World Wars - but never deferred. Athletes will also be playing in empty stadiums as foreign spectators have been barred. And when the curtains roll down, they would be the largest event of any kind to be conducted in a long time in any country amid the pandemic.

As such, they have been touted as the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel, the surest sign that the world is emerging from dark days and returning to the heydays of pre-pandemic normalcy.


Japan and COVID-19

One thing we can all agree on - Japan dealt with the coronavirus better than most countries. Like its East Asian peers like Taiwan and South Korea - which also flattened the curve, a recent surge notwithstanding - the land of the rising sun kept cases and deaths low thanks to prompt government action and a widely-followed mask mandate. At 1.73%, Japan’s fatality rate is one of the lowest among developed countries. All this despite its notoriously ageing population.

That said, the country is currently battling a stubborn third wave since April. Many cities - including Tokyo - are in a state of emergency, with some restrictions expected to remain well into June.

Concerningly, Japan’s vaccination drive has been languid. As of today, less than 2.5% of the population has been fully inoculated. Authorities have only approved Pfizer’s vaccine so far, and delivery contracts indicate that the doses required may not arrive until the end of the year. This is worrisome for any country but especially so for one that is Olympics-bound. And especially so at a time when there are vaccine supply shortages and new virus variants propping up.


Japan and the Olympics

The joy was even greater than when I won my own election.

That’s how then-PM Shinzo Abe described the moment in 2013 when his country was awarded the Games by the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

Economics aside, hosting the Olympics is a matter of honour and prestige. But today, the Games have become a lightning rod in Japan. In 2019, 9 in 10 Japanese were eagerly looking forward to the event. Recent polls indicate that 80% of the nation is now opposed to holding it this year, with half in favour of another postponement and the other half wanting a cancellation altogether.

Many towns that were supposed to host athletes have pulled out fearing local outbreaks. SoftBank's CEO has criticised the government's stance, asking "on what authority is it being forced through?" The country's biggest sportstar - Naomi Osaka - has said "if [people are] not feeling safe, then it's definitely a really big cause for concern".

However, the political leadership is determined to see the Games through. Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide has vowed to ensure a safe tournament and has ruled out another adjournment. Which brings us to...


The Economics of the Tokyo Olympics

Cities vie to host the Games expecting an economic bump. Think of the Games as a two-week-long marketing campaign by the host country: the Olympics bring thousands of foreign spectators and future visitors, which means more money coming in for local businesses. It also means a lot of money gained through sponsorships and ticket sales.

On the flip side, there's also a lot of money that needs to be invested in things like infrastructure and security. Conducting the largest sporting event in the world is obviously a costly affair. The bill for the 2020 Games could run beyond $20bn (initial estimates have repeatedly been revised upwards, but this is normal - every Olympics since 1960 has run over budget by an average of 172%).

This year, there will be additional costs due to COVID-related countermeasures. And incoming revenue will obviously take a big hit due to the absence of spectators and tourists. Tokyo is likely to suffer a $5bn hit ($3bn on safety measures, and the remaining accounted for by lost ticket sales and lack of a tourism boom).

FYI: The decision to continue branding the Games as the “2020” Olympics was a partly economic one. This saved the organisers millions in t-shirts, banners, memorabilia and merchandise costs.

As for the IOC, 73% of its income comes from selling broadcast rights and most of the rest is derived from selling sponsorships. (The IOC is a Switzerland-based non-profit. As the governing body of the Summer and Winter Olympics, it promotes the Games worldwide. Total income in the 2013-16 cycle was $5.7bn.)

Considering these numbers, it’s not difficult to see why the Japanese government and the IOC are unwilling to stomach a cancellation. 


COVID-19 and the Olympics

To be sure, many major sporting events have been held in recent months. In the US, the National Football League held the Super Bowl. The Australian Open proceeded as planned. The Indian Premier League continued to be held despite the deadly Second Wave in India.

But needless to say, the Olympics are a different ball game altogether. 11,000+ athletes from 200+ countries. To say nothing of their staff, coaches and families. Safely conducting an event of this scale will be a gargantuan challenge for Japan, even without spectators.

The usual safety measures will be in place. Social distancing and face masks wherever possible. Frequent testing. Asking countries’ contingents to remain in bubbles and not mingle with locals. And around 80% of participants are expected to be vaccinated.

Unless they are cancelled or postponed at the last minute, the 2020 Summer Olympic Games are going to be a hit-or-miss situation. If Japan pulls it off, it would be nothing short of a miracle, a valiant demonstration of good governance and meticulous planning. But if we have a super-spreader event on the cards, (an avoidable) disaster awaits.

PS - You may want to read in-depth about the impact of the coronavirus pandemic on the sports industry.


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