With virtually every major sporting event shutting down, the question inevitably becomes will the Olympics be canceled/postponed as well? That answer could come at any moment, but it would also be a decision that might not be made for awhile. The sporting events that have been canceled so far all did so because they had ongoing games.
This is not the case for the IOC who has a few months to wait things out and hope for the situation to improve before making the critical decision as to whether the Olympic Games will go on. If the IOC makes a decision in the near future, it will be because public relations has forced them into such a decision.
You are going to see conflicting accounts regarding the status of the Olympics. Japan and the IOC are two separate factions who both want to preserve the Tokyo Olympics, but have completely different motives. Both sides will be making statements to the media designed to push the narrative in their favor. This will involve conflicting accounts. This already happened a few weeks ago when COVID-19 first impacted Japan and a discussion of Olympic cancelation was first raised with the two factions saying completely different things.
For Japan their motive is to preserve their status as Olympic host and if possible, to preserve the financial benefits of being an Olympic host (tourism). How this will impact other elements of the Olympic movement is not their concern. For the IOC their concern is to meet their obligations to all their partners. This includes making sure whatever decision made in 2020 doesn’t impact Paris-2024 and listening to concerns raised by their television partners, sports governing bodies, and athletes.
An example of this would be moving the Olympics to a different country, a complete deal breaker for Japan, but less of an issue for the IOC. Or vice versa, pushing the Olympics to 2021 so Japan can enjoy a full tourism boost which would be their best case scenario, but something the IOC would be reluctant to do.
One other important thing to note: The IOC’s previous statements took a hardline stance of keeping the date and location of the Olympics intact, avoiding talks of a possible postponement. It must be understood that such a position originated back when Japan was one of the first countries to get hit by COVID-19 and other countries had not had their sporting events thrown in flux. This is a significant detail because one reason the IOC had for not moving the Olympics was to preserve its time slot on the television schedule, ensuring it didn’t conflict with other sports leagues.
With virtually all of the major sports leagues now postponed or outright canceled, the sports calendar that was so critical to the IOC’s thought process is now gone. Another major change is when COVID-19 first impacted Japan, the same could not be said for other countries. The IOC was facing the prospect of being the only sports institution significantly impact by Coronavirus. They wanted to avoid the prospect of being the lone sports institution that caused a billion dollar sporting event to not be delivered to their television partners.
But now that COVID-19 has impacted both Europe and North America, the television networks have already lost billions of dollars worth of sporting events. The Olympics are simply the cherry on top of all the other sporting events that have been impacted. The point being made here is that the IOC is in a completely different situation and statements that were made weeks ago no longer apply.
The loss of March Madness should alarm Olympic fans. It was the “firewall” against the Olympics being canceled. If there was one sporting event that was too big to cancel, it was March Madness. If March Madness can go down, anything is possible of being canceled. March Madness is what funds the NCAA for a whole year. To put into perspective of just how big of a television event it is:
This is the Google results for “TruTV” that famously gets a bump in search results every March.
To cancel this event is a testament to just how serious the situation has become. The sports leagues are covered as they are still owed the money regardless of whether or not these events go on. Their real concern is not ruining their business relationships in the process. The television networks will break even. They are insured for the contracts they are required to pay to institutions such as the IOC or NCAA, but they will lose out on the profits they made from advertisements.
Who makes the decision to cancel/postpone the Olympics?
It is unequivocally an IOC decision. Everyone wants to host the Olympics and as a result the IOC has all the leverage when a host city is awarded the contract. Hosting agreements give all the power to the IOC. If the Olympics are canceled without IOC approval, it will be because the situation has become so bad in Japan, that they themselves forfeited the Olympic Games.
This is actually what happened during World War II when the Olympics were last canceled. Ironically the host was also Japan. Japan forfeited the Olympics because they did not want to divert resources from the war effort into building Olympic stadiums. The Olympics were then given to Finland. It was when Finland was invaded by the Soviet Union that the 1940 Olympics truly fell apart.
This is the more pressing concern for the IOC. A more optimistic view would be the Olympics go on as the situation improves in the following months. But the problem today is the various Olympic sports need to choose what athletes are going to be allowed to compete at the Olympics. They need sporting events to do that and sporting events are currently being canceled en masse. That is the real news story for the time being barring the IOC announcing an outright cancelation or postponement.
The IOC is going to have to figure out a way to preserve its qualification process and do so in a way that is fair to the athletes. What may end up happening is they scrap the qualifying events altogether and just go with the qualifying results that they have now. But this will be a decision made on a sport-by-sport basis.
This article may come off as American-centric, but the business side of Olympic television is American centric. The American market is responsible for half of the IOC’s television income. The four major American sports leagues rank 1st, 2nd, 4th, and 6th worldwide across all sports leagues in terms of revenue. The American market is what sets the tone for everyone else when it comes to Olympic television.
Sports are important, but coronavirus is an example of just how unimportant they become in the context of larger issues. Commentary of sporting events being canceled should be respectful of the situation. If losing your favorite sport is the worst way coronavirus has impacted you, consider yourself fortunate. At the time of this article being published the lasted death toll was at 5,120 people. As unpopular as these decisions are, they are saving lives.