In March, the news was declared, inevitable yet disappointing, that the Tokyo Olympics, scheduled to take place this summer, would be postponed due to the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. It was indubitable proof – not that we needed it – that Covid-19’s effects were of global magnitude. The first time that the Games have been postponed, and the first time not to take place on schedule out of the war-time years, the decision has sent shockwaves throughout Japan and the sporting community across the world.
The financial impact of moving the Games is huge; one estimate from a Japanese economics expert places the additional cost at around £4.7billion. Organisers now face the challenge of footing the bill for the upkeep of the forty-two venues planned to be used for the Games, with some, including those for wrestling, fencing and beach volleyball, needing to be dismantled or freed up for other usage in the interim.
Yoshiro Mori, president of the Organising Committee, commented in an interview that if the Games had to be postponed again in 2021, they would have to be “scrapped”. An eight-year gap between Games would be a long wait indeed, and for athletes whose fragile window of sporting excellence relies on the carefully honed four-year build-up to the tournament, the news will have derailed many a precisely-planned training schedule.
International swimming and athletics associations have already confirmed that their scheduled World Championship competitions next year will have to be pushed back until 2022 to avoid taking place too close to the Olympics. These economic and logistical effects, the unwieldy iceberg beneath the tip of the IOC’s announcement, will have a lasting impact on the sporting world for years to come.
For sports like gymnastics, where female athletes tend to peak in their mid-teens, a year is a lifetime. US swimmer Ryan Lochte, due to turn thirty-six this summer was aiming to become the oldest gold medal-winning swimmer in history, but a year may rule out the possibility of him, and other athletes at the end of their careers, of being in with a competitive chance of attending the Games.
But perhaps giving the spotlight at this moment to athletes like Lochte (who, incidentally, was banned from competition for ten months after the last Olympics for falsely claiming to have been robbed at gunpoint whilst in Rio de Janeiro for the Games) removes attention from those who will be more impacted by the postponement. Sports and athletes with limited funding may struggle to continue until next summer; USA Cycling have reportedly furloughed or laid off 40 percent of their staff, with USA Rowing similarly cutting down their staff by a third.
Even more overshadowed are the Japanese workers who will lose out on business and financial security as a result of the postponement. The organising committee employs around 3,500 people, and with the added financial strain of the unexpected change in plans, many will lose their jobs.
The question that emerges from all this is, of course, who will pay? Expenses rise and stadiums and arenas are lying dormant as the world waits for the corona-storm to wane. The official figure for the total cost of hosting the Games is £10.4billion, although reports estimate that in actuality it is nearly double this; more than half of this money has come from Japanese taxpayers, and any increase in expenditure will surely leave them more out of pocket.
However, amidst it all, there are positives to take away from the situation. The New York Times reported that swimmer Rudy Garcia-Tolson, a five-time Paralympic medal winner, had decided to retire after Rio 2016, but had taken news of the postponement to use the next year to get back in training and give it one last shot. The Games, when they do take hopefully do take place, will be the ultimate symbol of triumph despite adversity. Japan, whose success in securing the Olympics in 2013 was partly down to the IOC’s aim of bringing hope after the misfortunes of 2011, when the country was hit by an earthquake and tsunami, killing 20,000 people and triggering the Fukushima nuclear disaster, is a nation used to overcoming challenges, and their vision for the historic tournament will no doubt be carried through, albeit a year later than scheduled.
Debate over whether or not the Games should have been postponed is a non-starter; the risk to all involved remains unquestionably high. But the real question now remains of who will pay the price, and bear the cost, of the Olympics’ unexpected legacy in Tokyo.