A woman wearing a face mask, amid concerns over the spread of Covid-19, sits at a bus stop in front of a Tokyo 2020 Olympics advertisement in Bangkok on Monday. Photo: AFP/Mladen Antonov

Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe admitted for the first time Monday that a postponement of the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games may become a possibility amid the global novel coronavirus pandemic. 

With the issue of postponement, not cancelation now hanging over the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games, the question appears increasingly likely to be whether the event will take place in the cooler months later in the year – as Tokyo may prefer – or be pushed back to 2021, which may suit the International Olympic Committee and broadcasters.

“The judgment of the IOC is in line with my decision to [hold the Games in their most] ‘perfect form,’” Abe told the House of Councilors’ Budget Committee on Monday morning, according to Japanese media.  

If a complete Olympics cannot take place, “the decision to postpone the Games will be made,” Abe said. “The government and the IOC both agree that canceling [the Games] is not an option,” Abe stated

The opening ceremony of the Summer Olympic Games is set for July 24, while the Summer Olympic Paralympics start on August 25.

Abe’s comments followed an IOC meeting in Lausanne, Switzerland, on Sunday.

“The IOC executive board emphasized that a cancelation of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 would not solve any of the problems or help anybody,” said IOC President Bach, according to AFP. “Therefore, cancellation is not on the agenda.”

The IOC added that a decision, including “the scenario of postponement,” would be made within four weeks.

’40-year curse’

The only time the Olympics, which are held every four years, have not been held since they were revived by Baron Pierre Coubertin in 1896 was during the world wars in 1916 and in 1940 – when they were scheduled to be held in Japan – and in 1944.

No other global emergencies – be it wars, terrorist attacks, nuclear crises or financial sector meltdowns – have caused the Games to be either canceled or postponed. There have, however, been boycotts.  

Japan’s Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso went so far as to suggest the Olympics suffer a curse every 40 years. The 1940 Games – due to be held in Japan – were canceled because of World War II, and the 1980 Games, set for Moscow, suffered a US boycott related to the invasion of Afghanistan.

“Another 40 years makes it this year,” Aso said last week, according to CNN. “The mass media would love this expression if I say it’s a cursed Olympics – but it’s a reality.”

Time window

However, a postponement could work in favor of the athletes, spectators and the Tokyo organizing committee, as there has been considerable concern about the Games taking place in the steamy heat of the Japanese summer.

But the IOC and the broadcasters who cover the Games and air them around the world would have issues if they do not take place in the carefully allotted time window, during the summer.

The three key stakeholders in the 2020 Olympics are the IOC, the Japanese government – which has spent billions preparing for the Games – and the main media sponsor, US-based network NBC, which in 2014 agreed to pay the IOC US$7.65 billion for exclusive US rights and has pre-sold advertising.

The last Tokyo Olympics, in 1964, were held in the cooler month of October. But today, media sponsors and TV schedules are far more critical. The reason the Games are set for the July-August time slot is to accommodate foreign, particularly American and European, broadcasters.

If the Games were held later in the year, they would clash with American football and Major League Baseball in the United States, as well as with the European football season.

The timing is also an issue for the IOC, which recognizes that the Games would get lower viewing numbers if forced to compete with these major sporting events.

Olympic Broadcasting Services and International Television and Marketing Services, produced a 2012 working group report which summed up the importance of the July-August time slot.

“Olympic Games held in the IOC’s preferred period of July/August provide broadcasters with a ‘guarantee’ that they will be prime-time market leaders,” the feedback read, according to Reuters. “In October, broadcasters would face lower viewership/ratings levels.”

Tokyo 2021?

All this suggests pushing the Games back to 2021 might be the most workable option. That option was strongly suggested in a forceful intervention by Canadian sports authorities. Hours after the IOC decision, the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic committees said they would not send athletes unless the events were postponed for a year.

“This is not solely about athlete health – it is about public health. With Covid-19 and the associated risks, it is not safe for our athletes, and the health and safety of their families and the broader Canadian community for athletes to continue training towards these Games,” a joint statement by the two Canadian committees read, according to Canadian broadcaster CTV.