Olympics: Still a waiting game for Tokyo Games as Covid-19 rages on

As Japan is buffeted by a fourth wave of the coronavirus, its bid to stage the Tokyo Olympics come July is looking increasingly wobbly. PHOTO: EPA-EFE

SINGAPORE - As Japan is buffeted by a fourth wave of the coronavirus, its bid to stage the Tokyo Olympics come July is looking increasingly wobbly.

Test events and qualifiers have been hit in the lead up, with the April 18-23 Fina diving World Cup - an Olympic qualifier - cancelled and then rescheduled owing to the uncertainty while a BMX freestyle cycling event for April 24-25 has been postponed.

Even the countrywide Olympic torch relay has not been spared, with three legs either scrapped or held in restricted areas since it began on March 25.

A senior politician, Toshihiro Nikai, secretary-general of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party, on Thursday (April 15) floated the possibility that the Games could be cancelled though this was dismissed swiftly by both the Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Tokyo Olympics president Seiko Hashimoto.

Amid the recent flip-flopping and uncertainty, one important voice has remained silent thus far - that of the International Olympic Commitee (IOC).

And it is understandable why, given the implications of a cancelled Games.

Money, money, money

Estimated at a cost of at least US$15.4 billion (S$20.6 billion), the Tokyo Games are set to be the third-most expensive Olympics after the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics (US$55 billion) and 2008 Beijing Olympics (US$40 billion).

The sum includes Covid-19 countermeasures costing US$900 million and a projected US$2.8 billion bill for the year-long postponement.

The lion's share of that has been borne by the Japanese government, with the IOC spending almost US$2 billion, including the US$800 million top-up it gave to Tokyo 2020 last year.

This was to be mitigated by domestic and international sponsorships, broadcast revenues, ticketing and tourism.

Ticketing has already taken a big hit, following last month's decision to ban foreign spectators. Japan had been expecting 600,000 tourists for that period, with total revenue for the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics projected at 721 billion yen (S$8.84 billion). The bulk of this would have gone to the hosts, with the IOC getting a share of the pie.

Deloitte South-east Asia sports business group leader James Walton said: "The summer Olympics are the biggest income generator for the IOC. If it doesn't happen, it could lead to contractual issues with sponsors, and there would be no broadcasting rights payments etc.

"That money is used to support National Olympic Committees (NOC) around the world, so that could lead to a reduction in their funding down the road."

In the last four-year cycle, the IOC earned more than US$4 billion from broadcast rights, which made up 73 per cent of its 2013-2016 revenue. A cancellation would be a triple whammy as all expenditures would have to be written off without any revenue, and the IOC would have to activate its US$897 million reserve fund to help finance global sport.

According to Bloomberg, it has also set aside US$647 million in assets from TV money in case of contract refunds, US$261 million for deficits in its main sponsorship programme and US$447 million for distribution to 206 NOCs.

It has also increased the budget for the IOC Subsidies for the Participation of National Olympic Committees programme from US$46.7m to US$ 57m to address specific needs incurred by the postponement.

But it is not only the IOC that will be affected. Rights holders such as US broadcaster NBC, which has a US$4.38 billion contract with the IOC to broadcast the Olympics through 2020, before extending to 2032 for another US$7.75 billion, would also find themselves in a financial pickle.

More than just dollars

Walton said: "The IOC appears to be in a no-win situation: cancel the Games, and it risks losing not only money but also potentially the support of its main constituents - the world's athletes.

"It could also end up in legal entanglements with partners such as broadcasters and sponsors, though many of the citizens of Japan, who have yet to back the Games in earnest, would breathe a huge sigh of relief."

Given what is at stake, it is little wonder that it seems intent on pushing ahead, pulling out all the stops to keep the Games as safe as possible.

Playbook precautions

In a move to curb the spread of Covid-19, overseas spectators are barred and foreign arrivals limited to athletes and support staff, Games officials, accredited media, and sponsors with operational roles.

While it has not made it compulsory for Tokyo-bound athletes to be inoculated, it announced last month that competitors would be offered Covid-19 vaccines bought from China. Its president Thomas Bach said that the IOC would pay for the vaccines, but did not reveal the costs.

Additionally, the IOC also developed 33-page Playbooks for international federations, press, broadcasters, athletes and officials, marketing partners and the Olympic and Paralympic family aimed at minimising risk and exposure to the virus.

It lists the rules they have to adhere to, including reporting health updates, regular swab tests and movement restrictions, and those who flout the rules could have their accreditation withdrawn.

Managing the risk

Japanese torchbearer Motoko Obayashi (centre), former Olympian volleyball player, running with the torch at Tsurugajo Castle in the city of Aizuwakamatsu, Fukushima Prefecture, on March 26, 2021. PHOTO: AFP

But despite the concerted efforts, there remains fear that the Tokyo Games could turn out to be a super-spreader event.

This worst-case scenario could do untold damage to the image of both the IOC and the Japanese government, said Walton.

Questions will be raised about whether the Games were allowed to go ahead because they prioritised money over the health and safety of athletes and the Japanese population.

He added: "The IOC has also been trying to reinvent the Games for the younger generation and build a new brand for being more sustainable and low-cost. If it turns out to be a super-spreader event in Tokyo, it will set it back in terms of its ability to engage a younger audience and attract and maintain its sponsors."

Noting that there have been Covid-19 cases in football, tennis and the National Basketball Association despite some competing in "bubbles", he said the onus would be on Games organisers to "manage that and ensure things do not go out of control".

Infectious diseases expert Dr Leong Hoe Nam said: "The higher the percentage of vaccinated attendees, the lower the risk of the Games becoming a super-spreader event. If all participants are vaccinated and wear masks when not competing, it will be a very safe Games."

But noting that it is not possible to make vaccination mandatory, he added: "While the measures taken to remain within the bubble will reduce the probability of infection, it will be hard to police tens of thousands of people and there remains that risk on the flights to Tokyo, and from the congregation of athletes at the Games Village and other attendees at competition venues."

What next?

The IOC has already indicated there would be no further delay to Tokyo 2020, so this means the Games will go ahead with an attempt to manage the obvious risks, or be cancelled if the situation is untenable.

World Athletics president and IOC member Sebastian Coe, the organising committee chairman for London 2012, previously told The Straits Times earlier that even though the infrastructure in Tokyo would stand the Japanese capital in good stead to host a future Games, it is unlikely to replace Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028.

For now, organisers can perhaps be cheered by the fact that athletes and the NOCs that back them are intent on a trip to Tokyo. Many of the world's stars, such as Kenyan marathoner Eliud Kipchoge and American swim star Katie Ledecky are preparing in earnest.

This is in contrast to a year ago, when major powers such as Canada and Australia declared that they would not send athletes to Tokyo. Countries such as Singapore are also in the process of vaccinating their athletes.

But as the virus continues to rage in some countries with less than 100 days to the Games, the waiting game remains for Tokyo 2020 organisers and its participants.

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.