As Rumors Swirl, These Five Factors Will Decide the Fate of the Tokyo Olympics

Odaiba Marine Park, the venue for triathlon and marathon swimming events during Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games.
Odaiba Marine Park, the venue for triathlon and marathon swimming events during Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games. (Toru Hanai/)

(Bloomberg) — As the global resurgence in Covid-19 cases reignites debate over whether to hold the Olympics this summer, focus has turned to how the fate of the Tokyo games will be decided, and what they will look like if they go ahead.

A resurgence of infections around the world and the emergence of new strains have led organizers to acknowledge that nothing is certain. Although the resumption of professional sports and arrival of vaccines have provided some optimism, leagues around the world are battling outbreaks and inoculation campaigns have been slow. Adding to the headwinds is Japan’s second state of emergency and public opposition toward hosting the event.

Speculation of a possible cancellation intensified Friday after the Times of London reported the Japanese government is seeking a way out of hosting this year. The report, which cited an unidentified member of the ruling coalition, said Japan is focused on securing the games for 2032.

“I want to flatly deny the report,” Manabu Sakai, Japan’s deputy chief cabinet secretary, told reporters in Tokyo. Other officials also rushed to dismiss the report.

“We are determined to stage a safe Games, with thorough precautions,” Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga told parliament on Friday, “as proof that the world has defeated the novel coronavirus and to show the world the recovery from the Great East Japan earthquake.”

The Tokyo 2020 organizing committee said the parties involved were “fully focused on hosting the Games this summer.”

The International Olympic Committee is understood to have the final decision on whether the Games go ahead. Hours before the Times report, IOC President Thomas Bach told Kyodo News that he has “no reason whatsoever” to believe the Olympics won’t be held as scheduled, and insisted there was no “plan B.”

However, cracks in existing plans have already begun to emerge in recent weeks, as the Tokyo 2020 Olympic planning committee and IOC consider cutting the number of participants at the opening and closing ceremonies, after Tokyo saw daily infections spike to a record earlier this month.

The new virus strain has also triggered tighter border restrictions and could complicate the arrival of athletes. The testing regime, quarantine procedures and securing of hospital space for potential participant infections may also be impacted if infections remain high.

A decision may come by March, the month Japan is set to hold the Olympic Torch Relay. That’s the month the delay was announced last year, even before Japan declared its first emergency. The end of March also marks the start of final preparations, according to the Tokyo 2020’s roadmap for the delayed games, shifting to a “games-time” structure, test events and the arrival of athletes.

Here are the main factors that will weigh on the final decision:

Yoshiro Mori, president of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee, was reported to have told local media that decisions on the games will likely be made around March, when they can better anticipate the virus situation in the summer. His office denied he had made such remarks, and said it was seeking a correction.

A failure to exit the current state of emergency could complicate planning and pressure officials to make some tough decisions. While Japan’s emergency is currently set to run until Feb. 7, it could be extended, and Japan’s top virus adviser Shigeru Omi has said it may last until April.

“We can’t give a forecast for what the situation will be for July and August,” said Norio Sugaya, a visiting professor at Keio University’s School of Medicine in Tokyo and a member of a World Health Organization panel advising on pandemic influenza. “There is concern about a coronavirus variant, and it will be difficult to invite visitors from all over the world. They shouldn’t wait until March to decide.”

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