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'No-fan Olympics' possible as Tokyo in whirlwind after pandemic declaration

The new National Stadium, rebuilt for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics, is seen in the capital's Shinjuku Ward on Dec. 15, 2019. (Mainichi/Takehiko Onishi)

TOKYO -- Circumstances surrounding the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics scheduled for July have been thrown into confusion amid the global outbreak of the new coronavirus. While the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has maintained that the games will be held as scheduled, officials now need to consider alternative options after the World Health Organization (WHO) called the viral outbreak a pandemic.

In response to the WHO's declaration -- just four and a half months prior to the Summer Games -- Tokyo Gov. Yuriko Koike said, "I can't say it will not affect the games, and that is all the more reason to bring preparations forward in close cooperation with the IOC. There are various opinions on the matter, but I don't think canceling (the Olympics and Paralympics) is possible." The Tokyo Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games also commented, "We are going to prepare for a safe and secure games to take place in July as scheduled."

A source related to the national government, however, looked grim, telling the Mainichi Shimbun, "We're slowly being driven into a corner."

Based on the host city contract that the IOC signed with the Tokyo Metropolitan Government and Japan Olympic Committee (JOC), the international body has the sole right to decide whether to cancel or postpone the 2020 Games. The WHO's views, meanwhile, have influence over the IOC's decision. As the IOC lacks scientific knowledge, the committee launched a joint-working group with the WHO in mid-February. The group has also been joined by the organizing committee, the metropolitan government and the Japanese government.

The IOC's executive board meeting maintained that the quadrennial event will take place as scheduled during its meeting on March 3 and 4. The board based its decision at the time on the fact that the WHO had not declared the outbreak a pandemic. With the U.N. health agency's recent announcement, however, the premise of the IOC's argument has crumbled.

That being said, it's unlikely that the IOC will decide to cancel this year's Summer Games because it will simply not be able to gain sufficient revenue without broadcast right fees, at approximately $4.16 billion between 2013 and 2016, which make up roughly 80% of the committee's profit related to the Olympics.

Many media outlets have been reporting that the IOC is considering a "Plan B." An article published in The New York Times online on March 5 reported that during a late-February conference call among the WHO and medical experts for international sports federations, they discussed about a possible "fan-free Olympics" as one of the worst-case scenarios.

On March 11, Haruyuki Takahashi, an organizing committee executive and a former senior managing director at Dentsu Inc. -- a major advertising agency influential in Japan's sporting world -- suggested through the media that a two-year postponement was a realistic option, considering the circumstances that it would become difficult for athletes to gather in one place.

Under his proposal, however, it would be difficult to secure venues for the events and space for the athletes' village, and the cost of hosting the games -- estimated at a total of at least 3 trillion yen by the Board of Audit of Japan -- would further balloon. Furthermore, 2022 is also the year when the Winter Games in Beijing and soccer World Cup in Qatar are slated to run. Holding the Summer Games around these major sporting events would bring issues such as sharing media coverage and competition to secure resources.

A source related to the JOC said, "We'd have to verify options to see which will do the least damage."

(Japanese original by Kazuhiro Tahara, Tadashi Murakami and Akira Matsumoto, Sports News Department and Koichi Uchida, City News Department)

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