TBS Sunday Japan_15March2020
Open discussion on the possibility of postponing the Tokyo2020 Olympics during a popular Japanese news program, Sunday Japon, this morning on TBS_March 15,2020

Standing in the middle of the office, I let out an audible “woah.”

It was around noon on Thursday, March 12 (Japan time) and I saw on my phone that the NBA had just suspended the season after learning that a player for the Utah Jazz (later revealed as center Rudy Gobert) had tested positive for coronavirus. Seemingly minutes later, I saw that Tom Hanks and his wife Rita announced that they too have tested positive while on a movie shoot in Australia.

The NBA is an organization that generates over $8 billion a year and the average franchise is valued at over $2 billion, and it suspended all games in the midst of a playoff drive, probably ending the opportunity for their greatest revenue generating opportunity – the NBA playoffs in May and June.

Tom Hanks is a two-time Oscar award winner for best actor and one of the most beloved actors in the world, and he put a human face on the virus for billions of us.

In the next 36 hours, those major quakes were followed by a quick succession of aftershocks in the sports world: cancellation or postponement of the Major League Soccer season, the NHL during their run to the playoffs, the popular NCAA men’s and women’s basketball championship tournaments, the MLB pre-season and opening day, The Masters golf championship, the Boston Marathon…and that was just the United States.

People like myself, who have not been personally impacted by the growing pandemic in any serious way, were given a reality check. We watched the news with growing alarm, followed the news in hot spots like China, Korea and Italy with concern, obeyed the instructions of health experts, but pretty much went about our lives because we are fortunate enough to do so.

But then came the rash of major cancellations and postponements, the news of global travel restrictions, plummeting stock markets and invocation of national emergencies….many of us are now experiencing, on a much smaller scale, what people who are directly impacted by the virus have already gone through: Shock.

Shock is the first phase of The Change Curve, the emotional reaction people have to sudden change, or very bad news. Based on a model that explains how people deal with terminal illness developed by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, the Change Curve shows how people go through stages that include denial, anger, depression and acceptance.  In my world of leadership development, we use a framework that provides shorthand for that curve: SARA, which stands for Shock, Anger, Resistance, and Acceptance.

The early images of Wuhan, China, where the outbreak originated, were of shock and anger, particularly regarding lack of transparency about how bad the situation was, the silencing and martyrdom of the doctor who first tried to spread the news of the virus in Wuhan, and the fact that the Chinese government waited till mid January to inform residents that the virus could spread via contact with other people. By the end of January, over 50 million people in China saw their cities and towns placed in lockdown, anger boiling over with attacks on doctors or spitting on elevator buttons.

There is no doubt still a great deal of anxiety in China, but recent reports out of major cities in China report an acceptance of sorts, a new normal of everyday life, where almost all moments of the day are spent inside one’s home, where streets are empty except for delivery bikes. Oscar Fuchs, a Brit living in Shanghai, wrote in the middle of February, that he has gotten used to living behind locked gates in a country where swift and strong action was taken to clamp down on social interaction.

I don’t feel under siege. And as inconvenient as these restrictions are, I don’t find them stressful. I find them comforting. There’s a stoicism in my community of Chinese neighbors that is very calming. And everyday changes to regulations are being superbly well-organised and communicated. It makes me feel that China and the Chinese people are on top of this. And it makes me feel that mindset is everything.

In fact, the levels of safety and security compared to the rising concern in the rest of the world has created the perception that China is safer than other countries just starting to deal with the growing shock, anger and resistance to coronavirus. At least that is how Tony Perman, an associate professor at Grinnell College, views China after recently returning to the US from Shanghai.

When my family returned to the United States after six weeks of quarantine in Shanghai, our friends and relatives responded with congratulations and relief that we were finally safe. Less than a week since arriving back home, however, we don’t quite share our loved ones’ sentiments. We felt safer in Shanghai as conditions improved than we do in the U.S.

I’ve now lived through a coronavirus quarantine in the two countries, and the differences are stark well beyond their airports. In China, the obligation to isolate felt shared and the public changed their habits almost immediately. Sterilization, cleanliness and social distancing were prioritized by everyone at all times. Rightly or wrongly, the Chinese state’s heavy-handed approach seemed to work.

We do not know how long the COVID-19 pandemic will last. Many of us are still in the early stages of the change curve. For me personally, it’s been a succession of shock-anger-resistance cycles. During the Diamond Princess scare in February, I shared the armchair frustration and anger, but continued to attend networking events where large groups of people attended.

Then there were the series of corporate or chamber of commerce events that I was personally involved with that had to be postponed, with the hope that they would be re-scheduled for early Spring or Summer.

And while various officials would speak out on the possible cancellation or postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, I joined Tokyo2020 officials in the belief that the Show would go on as scheduled, wishfully believing that something so big, with so many stakeholders, with so much invested, could not be cancelled or postponed.

But the rapid-fire shocks of recent events have had a desensitizing effect on me. The reality is, the health and welfare of people around the world, whether they be members of our own family, friends, athletes, or world leaders for that matter, is far more important than a sporting event, even a mega, big-tent event like the Summer Olympics.

To be honest, I am still in that resistance stage, hoping that the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics will take place as scheduled. But as expressions of shock, anger and resistance continue to grow well beyond Asia, and uncertainty persists as to when a reliable treatment or cure will emerge, it is hard to imagine a world that is secure and confident enough to congregate in July by the tens of thousands in one city – Tokyo.

I’m not quite at the second “A” in SARA, but I’m getting there.

And once there, I hope to add the letter “H,” which represents healing and hope.

Normalcy will return. But not until the change curve has run its course.

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Olympic Rings outside National Olympic Stadium
Will Olympic Stadium be packed on July 24?

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.