Students in Japan had mixed emotions as classes in public schools across Japan were suddenly canceled in late February, a couple of weeks before the beginning of Spring Break, in order to diminish the spread of the suddenly feared CoronaVirus.
A few days later, students and fans of baseball were given something to cheer about, informed that the hugely popular National High School Baseball Invitational would likely commence on March 19. Thirty-two schools will come together in the annual two-week tournament in Osaka, at Hanshin Koshien Stadium.
There is a catch. If the tournament is not ultimately cancelled, the stadium seats will be empty. (Note: On March 11, it was announced that the tournament was cancelled.)
While fans can watch the games on television, they will not hear the constant hum of high school students cheering, singing, nor see the waving banners in the stands, or the crying students in the aftermath of a victory or a loss. There will be no eruptions of joy from fans in the stands as a team emerges victorious in walk-off fashion. The players will have nothing but each other’s energy to feed off of, doing their best to ignore the deafening roar of silence.
Such is the state of sports events in the era of COVID-19.
Such is the possible future of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.
For the Summer Games, scheduled to run from July 24 to August 9, 2020, I can forsee five scenarios depending on the global level of anxiety regarding the spread of CoronaVirus in the coming months. Here they are, in order of likelihood. This is hardly a scientific finding – this order is educated guesswork, so please take this ranking in that spirit.
- Move the Games
- Postpone the Games
- Cancel the Games
- Hold the Games as Scheduled without Restrictions, or with Restrictions
Move the Games (the least likely scenario): When Shaun Bailey, a candidate running for election in London’s mayoral race stated on February 25 that the Olympics should be moved from Tokyo to London because of the “ongoing disruption” of the virus, the governor of Tokyo, Yuriko Koike, instantly pushed back, saying Bailey’s comments were “inappropriate.”
It’s true that a women soccer qualifier involving Australia, Thailand and Taiwan were moved from Wuhan, China to Sydney, Australia, and an Olympic boxing qualifier, also scheduled to be held in Wuhan, was moved to Amman, Jordan. But moving an entire Olympic Games may be very costly, and logistically impossible. Just moving the marathon from Tokyo to Sapporo may cost at least USD100 million.
Veteran IOC member, Dick Pound said in an AP interview that moving an Olympic Games is very hard on short notice as “there are few places in the world that could think of gearing up facilities in that short time to put something on.” In other words, think of all of the events in London that would have to be pushed and cancelled, how many people would have to moved out of London hotel rooms, how nearly impossible it would be to get the resources ready for such a massive operation, etc. It takes a city seven years to prepare for an Olympics. A few months would be impossible.
Postpone the Games: Rugby matches in the Six Nations Championship between England and Italy, and between Ireland and Italy in March were postponed because of the coronavirus breakout in Italy. The same for J League professional soccer matches at the start of the season in Japan, as well as the 2020 Chinese Grand Prix in Shanghai, a major F1 racing event scheduled for April 19.
Japan’s Olympic Minister, Seiko Hashimoto, stated on March 3 that technically, the organizing committee could postpone the Olympics to a date if still within 2020. However, Pound doesn’t think postponement is a likely scenario either as North American broadcasters (essentially NBC) would not agree to a Fall timeframe as the competition for ratings against a bevy of other sports could be crippling to Olympic coverage.
Delaying by a year, would be a challenge as well. “You have to ask if you can hold the bubble together for an extra year,” Pound said. “Then, of course, you have to fit all of this into the entire international sports schedule.”
Cancel the Games: Already, quite a few significant events have been cancelled, particularly in Asia: The Hong Kong marathon on February 9, the Paris half-marathon on March 1, the Honda LPGA Tournament in Pattaya Thailand from February 20-23. Two Olympic test events were cancelled: the 2020 Paralympics Wheelchair Rugby event from March 12-15, and the Asia Sevens Invitations 2020 rugby test event on April 25-26 in Tokyo.
This is not a fantasy scenario for the Olympics. If moving or postponing the Games is considered highly challenging, and the CoronaVirus situation does not improve, then cancelation in July becomes a very real possibility. A Japanese virologist, Dr. Hitoshi Oshitani, went on the record at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Japan saying, that “right now we don’t have an effective strategy, and I think it may be difficult to have the Olympics (now).”
Hold the Games: It is a wish of many people, particularly me, that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and the 2020 Tokyo Parlaympics are held as planned. But with continued uncertainty about the longevity of COVOD-19, and the fact that it continues to spread globally, there is a good chance that a Games without restrictions will be unlikely.
In the case there are still global fears of person-to-person contagion this summer, even if the fear factor has diminished at that time, it is possible that restrictions on attendance may be put into effect. Serie A league matches in Italy and pre-season Japan league baseball are now being played behind closed doors. Like the Koshien tournament, we may be witness to a spectacular opening ceremony on TV, while seats in the new Olympic Stadium remain empty. That may be the price we pay to ensure the athletes get to compete, and demonstrate why they are the best in the world.
So, I believe…I hope…I pray…that holding the games unencumbered of concern, or just on TV, are the two likeliest scenarios for Tokyo2020.