Will it ignite? A runner holding an Olympic torch practises lighting a cauldron during a rehearsal for Tokyo's 2020 Olympics torch relay. Photo: AFP / Charly Triballeau

As the coronavirus outbreak rages, Tokyo Olympics organizers say there’s no “Plan B.” The summer games will begin on July 24 – and what an extravaganza Shinzo Abe’s government claims to have in store for sports enthusiasts everywhere.

Yet doubters have 38,000 reasons to wonder if the Japanese Olympic Committee is dreaming. That’s how many runners were recently told the March 1 Tokyo marathon has been cancelled. Only an elite group of 176 – and 30 wheelchair athletes – will compete in the 42.195-kilometer event.

For Tokyo, it’s the starkest sign to date that the nation with the third-largest number of coronavirus cases after China and South Korea is bracing for the worst.

Of course, such concerns may end up looking silly 155 days from now should opening ceremony festivities come off exactly as planned. There are promising signs that the number of new cases in China is trending downward. History also hasn’t been kind to those who called for the cancellation of the 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics amid Zika virus hysteria.

It’s impossible to say where the so-called Covid-19 outbreak will be, even 30 or 60 days from now. For those overseeing planning for Japan’s most significant foray onto the global stage in decades, though, there’s ample reason to worry.

If there is panic in Tokyo, officials aren’t letting on. About the most emotional take comes from Tokyo Olympics CEO Toshiro Muto, who admitted he’s “seriously worried” about the impact the coronavirus could have on the “momentum towards the Games.” Not on the Games themselves, but how the public discourse is focusing on whether Japan is safe for travel.

This is a deeply sensitive topic. Tokyo howled in protest last week over posters in South Korea depicting Olympic torchbearers in anti-radiation hazmat suits, a reference to the 2011 nuclear crisis in Fukushima. JOC officials also are fending off warnings about threats that Tokyo’s extreme summer heat may pose to athletes.

Generally, though, the mantra that Yoshiro Mori, a former prime minister who heads the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee, has been repeating over the last week forms the official government line: “I want to again state clearly that cancellation or postponement of the Tokyo Games has not been considered.” The IOC line can be found in inspection team head John Coates’ take that the coronavirus is an “unexpected issue” that requires greater precautions, not panic.

Some media outlets are less sanguine. In a February 15 editorial, the Asahi Shimbun warned it’s “time to face the real possibility of a coronavirus epidemic at home.” Worries around a potential pandemic arrived in Japan with the quarantined cruise ship Diamond Princess currently docked at Yokohama Port. Among the ranks of the 3,700 people on board was the biggest outbreak outside China.

Reports of local transmissions, albeit modest in number, are making headlines abroad. Increasingly, multinational companies are avoiding travel to Japan. Prada cancelled a big Japan fashion show scheduled for May.

“We are seeing companies in several countries besides China, such as India, that are refusing business trips from Japanese partners,” said Japan Foreign Trade Council chairman Kuniharu Nakamura. “This reminds us again of the severity of the impact.”

Japan’s tourism business is taking ever bigger hits. Already, Prime Minister Abe’s plan to woo 40 million tourists this year is a non-starter. And another body blow for an economy that plunged an annualized 6.3% in the fourth quarter. Mainland Chinese, it’s worth noting, account for 40% of all tourist expenditures in Japan.

Much of Abe’s ambitious tourism goal centers on Tokyo 2020, a coming-out party he hopes places Japan on the bucket-list of travelers around the globe. Instead, Japan’s media are fending off what they deem misinformation about health risks. In a recent editorial, the Mainichi newspaper called on Tokyo to “provide accurate info on virus spread to prevent anxiety [and] discrimination.”

The Mainichi and other outlets have taken to quashing social media chatter about Tokyo 2020 being cancelled. Such reports have trended on and off since January 30. More recently, the media have been highlighting news that US President Donald Trump might attend the Olympics. On February 18, Trump said: “We’ll make that determination. We haven’t made it yet, but we might.”


Part of the “might” may depend on how Japan fares with the coronavirus. On February 20, Japan announced that two passengers from the cruise ship moored near Tokyo had died. Hardly news that helps Abe’s government spin the outbreak as controllable. More than 620 people on that ocean liner have tested positive so far.

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that the coronavirus morphs into a full-blown pandemic come July. Tokyo would confront an unprecedented situation, the first time the Games were postponed or shelved for reasons other than a world war.

By some forecasts, Tokyo may end up lavishing some $26 billion on the Olympics and Paralympics, dwarfing the roughly $7 billion it was originally estimated the event would cost.

Outright cancellation is far less of a risk than postponement. To even entertain the possibility of cancellation would require that the worst-case scenarios for the coronavirus mutating and spreading round the globe like wildfire to prove true.

Assuming today’s optimism that the virus is peaking – or already has – the question for Tokyo is whether countries from the US to China to South Korea to Great Britain will feel comfortable sending teams. Losing any top sporting nation might tarnish the validity of Tokyo’s medal tallies.

Postponement would prove chaotic for JOC organizers and travelers holding flight and lodging reservations. Yet altering the schedule might prove most costly for NBC in the US. The network is paying nearly $4.4 billion to broadcast the Summer Games.

But there’s also the issue of putting athletes at risk.

When Tokyo held the 1964 games, events were held in October to avoid the city’s harsh heat and humidity. This year’s events are in the dog days of summer so as not to collide with NBC’s sports programming in the fall. A postponement to later in the year, one can argue, could make the Games safer for runners, cyclists, rowers and other athletes competing in open-air events.

Just because there is no Plan B doesn’t mean one can’t be devised. For the time being, though, no one knows where the coronavirus story will go over the next five months. All that the 11,000 athletes from 200 nations who are preparing to flood Tokyo can hope for is to fare better than the 38,000 marathoners who have no race to run 10 days from now.

Sports organizers on the Chinese mainland have been busily cancelling events – basketball, the Shanghai Formula One Grand Prix, golf tournaments, track and field’s World Indoor Athletics Championships, you name it.  

All Team Abe can hope is for the coronavirus to burn out in time for Tokyo’s big moment in the spotlight. Even if it does, though, the economic fallout could dampen Japan’s 2020.

Abe has long predicted the Games would generate an economic high on which Asia’s No. 2 economy would ride into 2021 and beyond. Yet analysts at Fitch Solutions warn that coronavirus effects “could limit the positive spill-overs.”

Even the best-case scenarios for Japan at this moment in 2020 auger poorly for the next several months. So much for the medal-caliber economic year Abe thought was in store for Japan Inc.