Feb 27, 2020 - Sports

Coronavirus threatens Tokyo Olympics

Illustration of virus cells in the shape of Olympic rings
Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

With the Summer Olympics scheduled to open in Tokyo in less than five months, organizers are grappling with the coronavirus outbreak — and facing questions about whether the games could be moved, postponed, or even canceled.

The backdrop: Japan has closed schools nationwide until late March, and the country's professional baseball league is currently playing preseason games in empty stadiums.

The state of play: Longtime International Olympic Committee member Dick Pound estimates that the IOC has until late May to decide if the Olympics can go forward as scheduled.

  • If the answer is no, "you're probably looking at a cancellation," he told AP.
  • "You just don't postpone something on the size and scale of the Olympics. There's so many moving parts, so many countries ... You can't just say, we'll do it in October."

Why it matters: Public-health officials' warnings about the coronavirus are sounding increasingly urgent, so it's imperative that organizers take all necessary precautions ahead of the Olympics, where hundreds of thousands of people from every corner of the world will spend two weeks in close quarters then fly home.

The other side: Despite previous disease outbreaks (Zika in 2014) and frequent geopolitical tensions, the Olympics have only been canceled three times, all due to world wars (1916, 1940, 1944).

  • "[P]anicking, or fretting over what ifs and maybes several months down the road, is pointless. Especially since the IOC has been here before. Many times," writes USA Today's Nancy Armour.
  • "This is not meant to diminish the seriousness of the coronavirus, or suggest that the IOC and Tokyo organizers shouldn't keep a close watch on developments. ... But a dose of perspective is needed."

Worst case scenario: In the unthinkable case of a cancellation, an emergency ~$1 billion reserve fund could cushion the blow for the many international sports federations that rely on the IOC to balance their budgets, per Bloomberg.

The last word...

"It's premature to call for the cancellation or postponement of Tokyo 2020. But with the torch relay about to begin and just 150 days remaining to the Opening Ceremonies, it's certainly not too early to ask how the organizers and the IOC realistically propose to keep the Summer Games healthy and secure."
"How can they prevent an outbreak with athletes from 200 countries and 7.5 million ticket holders preparing to jam into villages and venues? They better have a Plan B. So far, they don't."
— Sally Jenkins, WashPost

Go deeper...Coronavirus updates: New global case numbers surpass China's

Go deeper