A big crisis might help solve an even bigger one
In March 2020, the President of the International Olympic Committee, Thomas Bach, tried his best to turn bad news into sounding more optimistic. “Let me start with the good news first”, He said in a video statement. “We all would be able to celebrate the Olympic games Tokyo 2020, even if it's only in 2021”.
It wasn’t the most elegant try, and unfortunately, it didn't work. The Olympic Games were postponed only twice before, both due to two world wars. Although Bach tried to sound cheerful, postponing the 2020 Tokyo games was a very big deal. Above all, it was a symbol; The pandemic, then with fewer than 400,000 diagnosed cases worldwide, has (temporarily) beaten us.
The Olympic games are known as the largest peacetime event in the world. It’s a huge event celebrating some 11,000 athletes and many tens of thousands of staff, organizers, press, and tourists from all over the world. Each Olympics is years in the making and has the power to completely transform a city. Postponing the games is a difficult decision that carries huge ramifications.
Firstly, for the athletes. For 4 years they prepare for this moment, for that one competition that could define an entire career. Think of an Olympic 100m run. Runners practice their entire lives for less than a 10-seconds event. Getting ready for competition means doing everything to reach the Olympic Games in the best shape possible, both physically and mentally.
And now, those athletes were told they have one more year to go. Imagine a long-distance runner almost reaching the finish line, only to be told that the race would actually continue for a longer distance.
“It’s going to be a task to manage the body,” said gymnast Becky Downie. “I know my body was hanging on by a bit of a thread,” Hockey player Susannah Townsend told BBC. “I’m going to have to talk to the coaches and figure out my training plan so I can peak at the right time.”
In sports, one year could be a very long time.
Postponing the games also carried grave financial losses. According to the official budget report, the postponement made the Olympic and Paralympic Games expenses grow by $900 million to a total sum of $6.7 billion. Tokyo municipal expenses grew by $800 million, and the government of Japan added another $700 million to its original planned budget. The total sum for the Tokyo games is now set at $15.4 billion.
Added costs are not the only financial challenge. Think of the different industries keenly waiting for the Olympics. Hotels, taxi drivers, restaurants, and souvenir shops, to name a few. According to estimates, Postponing the games, and the later decision to ban international tourists, mean a loss of $870 million to the Japanese tourist industry.
There’s one more thing worth mentioning. The pandemic is still very much here. It’s true that a lot has changed since last summer, but the world is still battling Covid-19. Having the games in summer 2021 might be safer, but many fear that it’s still not 100% safe.
And so, a recent poll found that 80% of people in Japan want to cancel or postpone the Olympics. Another poll showed 77% of Japanese share the same view. They are concerned that the games might spread the disease in Japan and introduce new variants. As the number of cases in the country rises, some are calling for the Tokyo Games to be canceled altogether.
So with the damage to athletes, the billions of dollars being lost, and the health concerns in Japan, how could I say that the pandemic could be a good thing for the Olympic games? Well, there is something else.
In recent years, many western countries have been debating whether or not it is still worth hosting a major international event such as the Olympic Games. A great recent example is Boston. The city won the bid as the American choice of hosting the Olympics of 2024. While city officials celebrated, residents were concerned. The ‘No Boston Olympics’ movement was formed, and with a very effective public campaign managed to block the city’s bid to host the games.
Concerns from a potential massive debt and venues left abandoned made the movement a success, and Boston wasn’t alone. Hamburg, Germany, was soon to follow. The west was starting to turn against the Olympics.
“The more they learn about the International Olympic Committee process, the less they like it for the host candidates,” said Kelly Gossett, co-founder of the ‘No Boston Olympics’ movement. “It works out better for the IOC, not the public. Democracies are shying away from that financial burden.”
A look at the list of cities that bid on hosting the Olympics in recent years reveals part of the bigger picture. The hosting role has become one that is more desired by cities that have already hosted large sports events before (and hence have the infrastructure relatively ready) or cities from countries that are — how shall I put it — ‘less democratic’ that want to use the game more as a PR stunt for their regime.
The 2008 games in Beijing were a great example of the power shift in hosting the Olympics. The Chinese government evacuated 1.5 million people, many unwillingly, from their homes in order to build the venues needed for the games. The opening ceremony alone cost the Chinese over $100 million.
Western cities can’t do that. Any democratic community that upholds civil rights, and has any accountability to public funds has no way to compete with these standards. Hosting the Olympics was on the track of becoming irrelevant to most of the western world.
The International Olympic Committee understood the problem, and to tackle it introduced ‘Agenda 2020’, a series of steps aimed to cut down costs for the Olympics and make the event attractive again for western hosts.
As part of this process, the IOC was so thrilled when two major western cities bid to host the 2024 games that it decided, in an unprecedented move, to award both Paris and Los Angeles with the role. The French capital as the 2024 host, and L.A as the host for 2028.
In the midst of this process came the pandemic. And although the challenges that Covid-19 presents, this might be a unique opportunity to take ‘Agenda 2020’ even further and change the Olympics for the better.
In a post-pandemic world, and strapped for cash global economy, this is the right time to cut costs for the Olympics even more. The IOC should loosen up some of its very rigorous demands, and new ideas could be formed in order to make the Olympics more economical.
Tokyo 2021 could prove that a ‘slimmed down’ Olympics does work. Even if this time around the financial loss would be great, Tokyo could set an example for the future.
Moreover, having the games this summer, at a time when, hopefully, more countries would be stepping up their vaccination campaigns, could turn the 2021 Olympics into a historic event in which humanity declares victory over the pandemic. This would bring back much of the glamour and historic importance that the Olympic Games might have lost in recent years.
Having a more financially reasonable event, and giving the Olympics back its significant global and historic role could increase popularity both with audiences and potential hosts.
Although the Covid-19 pandemic is a big crisis for the Olympic Games, it might be just what the event needed in order to solve an even bigger crisis and even save its future.