Staging the Tokyo 2020 Olympics as Planned Seems Unrealistic

The IOC insists that the Summer Games in Tokyo will go ahead as planned this summer. But given the severity of the coronavirus pandemic and the tight timeframe, it feels impossible to carry out the world’s largest sporting event in July.
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If we have learned anything about COVID-19, it’s that by the time you hear the clock tick, time has passed. When you start having symptoms, you have probably had the virus for at least two days and could have passed it to other people. When you hear there is a case in your community, it probably means there have been a lot of cases already.

And when you ask if it’s time to postpone the 2020 Olympics, that means it’s past time.

The International Olympic Committee will hold a conference call Tuesday to discuss the coronavirus and whether IOC members can find a way to profit off it. No, wait, that’s not right. The IOC will discuss the virus, and, one presumes, whether it will cancel or postpone the 2020 Olympics, scheduled to start July 24 in Tokyo.

At the time of that call, the Olympics will be 129 days away. There is no way to know what the world will look like in a week, let alone 129 days. But that’s not a lot of time to get this virus under control or to get ready to host the world’s largest sporting event.

Consider: The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention just recommended that we avoid large gatherings of 50 people or more for another eight weeks. When that ends, there would be just 73 days until the Olympics…but of course, the math is not that simple. Eight weeks is a minimum. The recommendation could last a lot longer, depending on how effective all of this social distancing is, among other factors. And the Olympics don’t just begin with the lighting of the Olympic flame.

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There is the small matter of selecting an Olympic team. U.S. track and field trials start June 19. Swimming trials start two days later. A lot of sports—including archery, wrestling, weightlifting and karate—have qualifying events before then, with some in that eight-week window. Some have already been postponed.

Could you move all of these trials to late June and hold them at the same time? That sounds good. It is not realistic. Many Olympic sports require peaking at the right moment—first for qualifying, and then for the Games themselves. Training schedules are planned long in advance, for good reason. You can’t ask athletes to stay isolated until late June, then perform their best, then be ready again a month later…and even if you could do that, you would be doing so under the assumption that we will be talking about COVID-19 in the past tense by late June. That seems wishful at best.

The deeper you examine this, the more problems you find. Ask yourself how the IOC plans to find the best basketball players in the world for its tournament. If the NBA wants to salvage its 2019–20 season, it will almost certainly need to play games in that Olympic window from late July to early August. So, the IOC would essentially be hoping the NBA cancels, and then, hoping we get COVID-19 under control to the point where the best players are ready and willing to play in the Olympics. It’s like trying to thread a needle with a rope. Forget it.

The WNBA season is supposed to start on May 15. That is right outside that eight-week, CDC-recommended window. Logically, that will probably be delayed, too. The WNBA has scheduled an in-season break so its best players can participate in the Olympics…but now we’re talking about a delayed start and potential arena conflicts with NBA teams trying to reschedule their season.

Keep looking. Normally, the world’s best tennis players fit the Olympics into a grueling schedule that includes the French Open, Wimbledon and the U.S. Open from late May to early September. If that schedule gets compressed at all—and France sure does not seem ready to hold a major sporting event right now—then that’s a problem.

This is supposed to be the second consecutive Olympics with a golf competition, and golf is huge in Japan. But the Masters have already been postponed. The PGA, in San Francisco in May, is likely next. If either of those get rescheduled, they will be priorities ahead of the Olympics. Also, not sure if you noticed, but pro golfers enjoy their paychecks. It was hard enough to convince them to play in the Olympics when they had giant piles of cash awaiting them the rest of the year.

Most of this, of course, only details the problems with the U.S. participating in the Olympics. This is a worldwide pandemic. Japan has been hit especially hard; the Nippon Professional Baseball League planned a hiatus during the Olympics, but now the NPB has delayed the start of its regular season, so who knows? Soccer leagues around the world have suspended their seasons. This brings up the same two-pronged problem for the IOC: It needs the pandemic to recede and it needs a lot of athletes to prioritize the Olympics over their much more lucrative day jobs, all in an extremely tight timeframe. This is just not realistic.

If the IOC somehow does stage the Olympics this year, then at best, it will be an Olympics that a) a lot of elite athletes skip because they prefer other events, and b) features many athletes who scramble to be in the best possible condition for their events.

Also: The longer the IOC waits, the worse it risks looking.

Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe said two days ago that the Olympics will go forward as planned. Nobody wants to make this decision. It’s heartbreaking for the many athletes who have worked most of their lives for this opportunity. But staging these Olympics on time feels impossible The bigger question is whether they get canceled or postponed. Postponing until 2021 feels like the best-case scenario. That, too, brings all sorts of logistical questions. But at least the IOC doesn’t have to answer those today.