Jan 22, 2021 - Sports

2021 Tokyo Olympics hang in the balance

Olympics logo as coronavirus

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

10 months ago, the Tokyo Olympics were postponed. Now, less than six months ahead of their new start date, the dreaded word is being murmured: "canceled."

Driving the news: The Japanese government has privately concluded that the Games will have to be called off, The Times reports (subscription), citing an unnamed senior government source.

  • "No one wants to be the first to say so but the consensus is that it's too difficult," the source said. "Personally, I don't think it's going to happen."
  • The source said the focus is now on securing the Olympics for the city in the next available year, 2032. Paris hosts in 2024, while L.A. hosts in 2028.

The other side: The International Olympic Committee and the Japanese government insist that the Games are still on, calling the report "categorically untrue."

  • "We have at this moment, no reason whatsoever to believe that the Olympic Games in Tokyo will not open on the 23rd of July," IOC president Thomas Bach said Thursday, adding that there is "no Plan B."
  • Yoshihide Suga, who became prime minister just four months ago, is framing the Games as "proof that humanity has defeated the coronavirus."
Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Chart: Axios Visuals
Data: The Center for Systems Science and Engineering at Johns Hopkins; Chart: Axios Visuals

The backdrop: Japan has reported fewer than 5,000 deaths due to COVID-19. But cases are surging in Tokyo, and the country's lack of testing (~55,000 PCR tests daily) limits its true understanding of the spread.

  • Meanwhile, public opinion has turned against the Games, with 80% of Japanese citizens saying they should be postponed again or canceled.
  • And with Suga's popularity plummeting amid the third wave, he's inclined to listen to the people — especially with an election coming up later this year.

By the numbers: Canceling the Olympics would be a financial disaster for Japan, which has spent over $25 billion on preparations, most of which was public money.

  • Yes, but: Implementing countermeasures against COVID-19 once athletes arrive adds even more costs. And with the possibility of no spectators, local organizers would earn $0 in ticket sales.

The bottom line: Whether or not a cancellation is on the horizon, grave uncertainty surrounds the Tokyo Games. And between the Olympics and Paralympics (set to open Aug. 24), the fate of 15,000 athletes hangs in the balance.

  • In case the situation improves dramatically, a final decision likely won't be made until the latest possible date, which is probably March 25.
  • That's when the torch relay is scheduled to begin in northern Japan and crisscross the country for four months. It's hard to imagine that going ahead with the Olympics being canceled.

P.S. ... While the focus is deservedly on Tokyo, let's not forget: The 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing are set to begin in just over a year (Feb. 4, 2022).

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