The Olympic rings are displayed outside the National Stadium, a venue for the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. Photo: AFP / Behrouz Mehri

“It’s a problem that’s happened every 40 years – it’s the cursed Olympics,” Japan’s Deputy Prime Minister Taro Aso remarked before a parliamentary committee last March.

Aso had a point. The 1940 Summer and Winter Olympics, scheduled to be held in Tokyo and Sapporo, respectively, were canceled due to World War II. Forty years later, the United States and 64 other countries boycotted the 1980 Moscow Summer Games to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. 

Now, as we approach the one-year countdown to the postponed and rescheduled Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics, how will the “40 year curse” affect Tokyo 2020 and beyond?

Here’s a look at the sorts of magic spells, incantations and elixirs that the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the Tokyo Organizing Committee (TOCOG) and Olympic stakeholders are conjuring to counter the curse and permit Tokyo 2020 to be held in 2021.

A woman wearing a face mask walks in front of a countdown clock of the rescheduled Tokyo 2020 Olympics games in the Roppongi area of Tokyo on June 12. Photo: AFP/Philip Fong

Costs and revenues

Any sane person has to admit that gathering people from all corners of the earth, putting them in close quarters for a few months and then sending them back where they came from is about the worst thing one could do in a pandemic. 

Planners originally expected for Tokyo 2020 11,000 athletes, 7,000 officials, 25,000 media representatives, 80,000 volunteers, 900,000 daily spectators and an estimated 10 million visitors.

While the IOC and TOCOG say that they will put health and safety first, quantities of profit, politics, pride, and institutional inertia at stake are too great to permit cancellation.

On the cost side, the Olympics is a multi-billion-dollar undertaking. Expenditures for the Beijing 2008 Summer Games ran to US$40 billion, while the 2014 Sochi Winter Games are estimated to have cost $50 billion.

A recent Japanese government audit put the cost of Tokyo 2020 at $25 billion, more than triple Tokyo’s $7.3 billion budget at the time of its 2013 bid. The year-long delay is expected to add another $3 billion, with Japan and the IOC still wrangling over who will pick up that tab. 

On the revenue side, Tokyo 2020 has generated record domestic sponsorship of more than $3 billion, three times as much as any previous Summer Games. As can be seen by Airbnb’s recent eight-year, $500 million deal covering five installments, the IOC receives approximately $100 million per Olympics from each of the 14 highest level sponsors (called The Olympic Partners, TOP for short), netting a cool $1.4 billion for Tokyo 2020 alone.

Special edition Coca-Cola bottles advertising the Tokyo 2020 Olympic games (postponed to 2021 due to the Covid-19 pandemic) seen at a supermarket in Toronto on June 11. Coke is a longtime TOP sponsor of the Olympics. Photo: AFP / Creative Touch Imaging Ltd / NurPhoto

Global broadcast rights, which constitute three-quarters of the IOC’s income, are $4.5 billion for the current Olympic cycle (2017-2020), with NBC spending over $12 billion to secure Olympic broadcasting rights from 2012 through 2032.  

One can’t help but feel sorry for Japan, which not only counted on the Olympics to finally close the chapter on its post-1990s economic and social malaise but also hoped for a $300 billion boost to the economy.

Adding insult to injury are recent surveys showing that nearly four in five Japanese don’t think Tokyo 2020 can be held, and that half of Tokyo residents do not even want the Olympics.   

Formula for simplified games

TOCOG has outlined three central principles for a simplified games – providing a safe environment, minimizing costs and ensuring safety and sustainability. This will translate into a scaling back of Olympic activities and operations, fewer services for athletes and officials, a reduction in spectator numbers and fan experiences – and losses for sponsors.   

The torch relay, which was supposed to start in Japan on March 26, was the first casualty of the postponement. The torch relay traditionally drums up grass-roots support and gives the people of the host nation a sense of Olympic ownership and participation. Its route and duration will most likely be shortened, and restrictions will be placed on the number of people lining the route and the extent of the traditional end-of-day celebrations.

While virtual reality and social media will try to make up for this curtailment of in-person interaction, the experience will be diminished for fans and sponsors alike. (The torch relay is a separate Olympic sponsorship.) 

Social distancing is the rule as the Tokyo Organizing Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games Executive Board meeting is held in Tokyo on June 12. Photo: AFP / The Yomiuri Shimbun

The Olympic fan experience during the games themselves will also be a casualty of the simplification. In addition to watching the physical prowess of the best athletes in the world, fans enjoy milling around the Olympic Green where they can visit sponsors’ Olympic showcasing centers and trade pins with random people from around the world. 

Instead of an Olympic Green, Tokyo’s original plan was to construct two thematic and operational zones, the “Heritage Zone” covering several iconic venues used at the Tokyo 1964 Summer Games, and the “Tokyo Bay Zone” which was to showcase Tokyo’s urban development and symbolize the future of the city.  

The Tokyo Bay Zone, which was to incorporate seven games venues, the Olympic cauldron, sponsor-showcasing centers, interactive fan zones and the Tokyo 2020 megastore offering, will most likely be the biggest target of the simplification plan.  

No magic potion

Despite the feverish work of pharmaceutical companies worldwide, there’s likely to be no certified foolproof vaccine ready in time for the Olympics. If there’s an unproven drug on offer, it’s doubtful that thoroughbred athletes will want to inject themselves.  

The Japanese authorities, TOCOG and the IOC will thus struggle to deal with the influx of athletes, coaches, Olympic bureaucrats and international spectators in the Covid-19 environment. 

Some sort of mandatory testing and quarantine for athletes and coaches will be implemented, and the Olympic Village as well as the training camps scattered around Japan will become bubbles that only tested people can enter. 

Dealing with international visitors will be even more complicated, as most will be on tight schedules that leave no time for quarantine. Furthermore, what will the procedures be if an athlete or coach tests positive for the virus? Will the athlete – and other athletes that infected athlete has encountered – automatically be isolated and disqualified from competition? Will individuals from high-risk nations even be allowed to enter Japan?  

While there are no clear answers to the above questions, contact tracing, rigorous testing and some sort of health app will be the only way to deal with the Covid-19 portion of the Olympics curse.  Maybe World Anti-Doping Agency operatives, in addition to their doping-related duties, can be tasked to monitor athletes’ health? 

As for the venues themselves, while IOC President Thomas Bach said in a BBC interview that holding the Games before empty stadiums is “not what we want,” some sort of social distancing and a reduction of spectators is likely, with piped in crowd noises and cardboard fan cut-outs also a possibility.

Olympics harbinger: J1 LEAGUE, the top division of the Japan Professional Football League, which had been canceled due to Covid-19 is resumed behind closed doors with seats covered with supporters’ pictures at Noevir Stadium Kobe in Kobe on July 4. Photo: AFP/The Yomiuri Shimbun

Regardless of what measures are implemented, athletes’ training schedules will be interrupted, performance will be impacted and it’s highly likely that fewer records will be broken. 

Collateral damage

While everyone can agree with the truism that the Olympic movement’s goal is to contribute to building a peaceful and better world through sport practiced without discrimination of any kind, the IOC has its Rule 50 stating that demonstrations are not permitted in any Olympic sites or venues. That rule is clearly out of sync with demands for social justice in the politicized world we now live. 

The US Olympic and Paralympic Committee Athletes’ Advisory Council and the New Zealand Olympic Committee have recently come out with calls to scrap Rule 50 and recognize athletes’ right to speak out on human rights issues.

While the IOC holds to a quixotic vision of itself as a unique institution that is above politics, that vision will likely be tested by athletes – particularly some who have been vocal in the past, including members of the US Women’s Soccer team, NBA stars and other seekers of social justice in the athletic world.  

Sponsors will also begin to question the efficacy of their sponsorships. The right to use the Olympic logo is really just a right to spend even more money on marketing campaigns – and the return on investment of an Olympic sponsorship is notoriously difficult to calculate.  Corporate marketing campaigns will have to be revamped, and sponsors will have to write off significant investments that have been made in brand and media campaigns.

Furthermore, multi-million-dollar hospitality programs to wine and dine customers which have been a mainstay of every sponsorship program will be drastically cut back.

While the IOC will do its utmost to convince future sponsors of the value of becoming part of the Olympic movement, one legacy of the curse will be that the $100 million sponsorship per Olympics price tag may come down.

The curse and beyond

While holding any sort of Olympics in Tokyo would be a symbol of hope in a troubled world, practically every update from the IOC or TOCOG brings up more questions than answers.

Barring a tsunami-like second or third wave of Covid-19 overtaking the world next spring, the Tokyo Games will be held with strict quarantine measures at the border, widespread testing and contact tracing, reduced fan-friendly activities and limited spectators.

Television broadcasts, social media and virtual reality will be how the games are experienced, and Tokyo 2020 will leave a legacy that may both diminish the scale and pageantry of future Olympics and, at the same time, spur evolutionary change. E-sports and similar virtual experiences may become de rigueur, changing the composition of Olympic events.

And whether the IOC wants to admit it or not, darkening clouds including calls for a boycott are gathering already over the Beijing 2022 Winter Games, scheduled to start a mere five months after Tokyo 2020. That will be the subject of a later article.   

Howard Snyder is currently Asia project manager for TorchStone Global, a boutique US security firm. He was security manager for a TOP sponsor at the 2002 Salt Lake City Winter Games and the 2008 Beijing Summer Games, and has lived in Asia for over 30 years. He speaks fluent Chinese and Japanese.