2020 Olympics postponed: What next for IOC, Tokyo, athletes?

The 2020 Olympics have been postponed. The formal announcement from the International Olympic Committee finally arrived on Tuesday, amid mounting pressure from athletes and stakeholders as the coronavirus pandemic worsened.

The IOC’s work, however, is only just beginning.

Postponing the Tokyo Games is not as simple as flipping a switch. “This is mind-bogglingly complex,” longtime Olympics executive Michael Payne told Yahoo Sports on Monday. With the announcement nearing, sources throughout the Olympic world raised a number of questions about the logistics of moving the Games to 2021 – about everything from venue contracts to athlete qualification processes to financial implications.

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The first question, however, might be the thorniest of all: Are we sure the Games can happen in 2021?

Will Tokyo Olympics be safe in 2021? 

In specifying that the Olympics were “rescheduled to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021,” organizers left themselves susceptible to the nightmare scenario: Having to postpone again, or cancel altogether.

The Olympics are a uniquely problematic event amid a pandemic. “A massive mixing bowl,” Steve Morrison, a global health expert at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Yahoo Sports. For the Games to go ahead, experts said, a number of conditions would have to be satisfied – and there’s a very real chance they won’t be by next summer.

A vaccine, which isn’t expected for 12-18 months, isn’t necessary, but would certainly help. Some believe it will be ready by July 2021. Others find that unlikely. It has to be not only tested, but then produced,” Dean Winslow, infections disease specialist at Stanford, pointed out. Morrison added: “I do not expect we will have a safe and effective vaccine – and manufacturing, finance and delivery systems in place for the vaccine – until the fall of 2021, at the earliest.” 

Morrison does expect “new therapies in place that can ameliorate the effects of the disease” within 6-9 months. In the absence of a vaccine, some sort of effective treatment along those lines will be necessary. Governments will also have to lift travel bans. Community spread will have to slow significantly. The Games going ahead, according to Steve Morse, an epidemiologist at Columbia University, “would depend greatly on both seeing the circulation abated and the susceptible population” — those who can become infected, as opposed to the immune — “below a critical threshold.”

But, Morrison said, “it will be a very long time, I expect, before our population and the population around the world acquires ‘herd immunity’ – the high threshold percent that either has acquired immunity through disease or vaccine.”

If those conditions aren’t satisfied, explained Ali Khan, an epidemiologist at the University of Nebraska, “all they need is one person among all these athletes to be sick and the cycle starts all over again.” The virus begins to spread again. Segments of society have to shut down again. Traveling fans could re-trigger the cycle too. “So there are significant challenges that the Olympics are facing,” Khan concluded.

Morrison’s recommendation, therefore, was unequivocal: “I would advise 2022.”

Others are more optimistic. “My guess is we will be in a much better place by Summer 2021, and well on the way to vaccination,” Rebecca Katz, a public health expert at Georgetown University, told Yahoo Sports. Olympic organizers are banking on that optimism coming to fruition.

Morse, however, summed up reality: “Nobody really knows. I don’t think we can say with any confidence what it will look like a year from now.” 

It's more and more likely the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo will be postponed. (Stanislav Kogiku/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
It's more and more likely the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo will be postponed. (Stanislav Kogiku/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

What’s the biggest logistical nightmare for Tokyo organizers?

The truly nightmarish challenges associated with postponement will be confronted behind the scenes. That’s where Tokyo organizers have a variety of stadiums, hotels and other venues lined up for 2020. All of those deals will have to be renegotiated, reservations canceled and rebooked, reconstruction plans put on hold.

“A number of critical venues needed for the Games could potentially not be available anymore,” IOC president Thomas Bach wrote on Sunday.

And those venue contracts aren’t just for three weeks, explained James Bulley, director of venues and infrastructure for London 2012. The Olympics require a “three-month lead in” for installation and security purposes. The “deconstruction and handback,” Bulley said, can then take another three months post-Olympics. Which means the Tokyo organizing committee has paid for use of both sporting and non-sporting venues for half of 2020 … and will now need to negotiate similar blocks of time for 2021.

The 2020 deals mean the venues will be vacant this year. The 2021 deals will displace other events scheduled for next year. And they’ll therefore cost a lot. “It will likely come at a premium,” Bulley said, due to the nullification of other reservations, the “potential loss of regular customers, and further disruption to anchor tenants.”

And he clarified: “One thing’s for sure. In London we didn’t have provisions in the venue use agreements for an option of postponement or cancellation. There were no compensation clauses if we cancelled, or deals agreed for postpone[ment] – because that was unthinkable. So all these deals and arrangements would have had to be renegotiated.”

That renegotiation, sources assure, will be possible. Almost anything is for the Olympics. But how?

“The Japanese will get ’round a table and work it out,” Payne said. “One by one.” 

What about the Olympic Village?

Beyond the stadiums and convention centers and accommodations, there’s the Olympic Village problem. Housing for thousands of athletes has been built overlooking Tokyo Bay. After the Games, it’s set to be remodeled into condos and apartments, among other complexes. The issue with postponement?

Units have already been sold to the public. Demand, as of late-2019, was soaring. Remodeling was set to begin after the 2020 Games, and a representative from Mitsui Fudosan, the real estate company developing the complex, told Yahoo Sports that residents were set to move in in March 2023. That timeline will presumably have to be pushed back.

“If the unthinkable had happened in London, we had no provision to extend the lease,” Bulley said of the Olympic Village and postponement. “I would expect it would have been possible to do so, it’s just a matter of how much it would cost.”

Who takes a financial hit?

Solving these problems will require money. The question – which is likely being debated as you read this – is who’ll provide the money. The Olympic host city contract pins mosts costs on organizers. These, however, are extraordinary circumstances. Will the IOC come to Tokyo’s financial rescue and foot the bill?

The IOC, in the long run, will be fine. “The IOC has no cash flow problem,” Bach told the New York Times last Thursday. As long as the Games ultimately happen, media and sponsorship partners will be fine as well. “The IOC’s broadcasters are mostly long-term, going out until 2032,” Payne said. “So this isn’t about one Games, it’s about multiple Games. You’re going to be adjusting a little bit of the payment schedule. [But] there isn’t the direct financial hit, in terms of revenue, that a lot of people are proposing.”

There could, however, be short-term shortfalls, with some rights fees not being paid out until after the Olympics. Those could hit national Olympic committees, such as the USOPC, which gets roughly 12 percent of the money NBC pays to televise the Games and roughly 20 percent of IOC sponsorship revenue. The NBC deal was set to pay the USOPC $558.6 million between 2014 and 2020, according to its 2016 financial statement. And the audited statement specifies: “No cash payments will be received and broadcast rights income will not be recognized until the year the respective Games are held and certain other requirements are met, including the participation of the official U.S. Olympic Team.”

That means something like half of the USOC’s projected 2020 revenue could be deferred to 2021 – though entities like the IOC, USOC and NBC have insurance for situations like this one that should keep them on stable ground.

The most significant financial hit will likely be to the Tokyo organizing committee. Japan was already projected to spend around $25 billion on the 2020 Games. Now there will be additional costs associated with venue logistics and maintenance. Organizing committee employees will presumably have to be paid another year’s worth of salary. Countless unseen costs will add up.

Did athletes support postponing the Olympics? 

Athletes gradually realized that holding the Olympics in July was simply not realistic. Most were fed up with the IOC’s dawdling wait-and-see approach and the pressure to keep preparing for an event likely to be postponed at any moment. 

A growing number of athletes across North America and Europe couldn’t train up to their usual standards because their training facilities had closed. Even Katie Ledecky, the world’s most accomplished female swimmer, went three straight days without being able to get in the water last week, and resorted to looking for backyard pools.

“We exhausted every other possibility we could think of — private pools, community pools, asking other universities to open their doors to us,” Greg Meehan, Ledecky’s coach, told Yahoo Sports on Friday. “Every time we thought we had something it would end up getting canceled later that day or the next morning.”

Those who could train worried they were putting themselves, their loved ones and their communities at risk. As Matthew Pinsent, a former English rower who won four gold medals, tweeted last Thursday, “the instinct to keep safe, not to mention obey [government] instructions to lock down, is not compatible with athlete training, travel and focus that a looming Olympics demands.”

Last Friday, USA Swimming became the first American governing body to call for postponing the Olympics. The next morning, USA Track & Field followed suit. By the end of the weekend, the Canadian Olympic Committee announced it would not send athletes to the 2020 Olympics should they happen as scheduled. 

“Thank you for being global role models,” Canadian race walker Evan Dunfee tweeted Sunday night. “We, the athletes, can now focus on being role models at home.”

Will athletes who qualified already for 2020 have to requalify for 2021?

This will surely be one of the thorniest issues for administrators to work through. Fifty-seven percent of the spots available for athletes in the 2020 Olympics had already been filled through qualification. It seems unfair to strip those athletes of their spots, yet federations may have to consider that possibility if their goal is to send their strongest medal contenders. 

Last July, open water swimmers Haley Anderson, 28, and Ashley Twichell, 30, became the first Americans to qualify for the 2020 Olympics when they both finished in the top 10 at the World Championships in South Korea. It’s certainly possible that Anderson and Twichell remain the most qualified Americans in that event by Summer 2021, but it’s also possible that other younger swimmers emerge between now and then.

The USOPC sent a letter to American athletes on Tuesday indicating it will work in partnership with athletes, national governing bodies and the IOC to redefine standards for selection and qualification.

"I wish I had answers to every question out there,” USOPC CEO Sarah Hirshland wrote, “but the reality is this decision is unprecedented, and therefore, presents an entirely new process – for you, for the organizers, for the NGBs and for the USOPC. Please know we are committed to working with you in the coming days, weeks, and months to address them together."

Han Xiao, a former table tennis player who chairs the USOPC’s athlete advisory council, said his group will urge the IOC not to force any athletes or teams who have already secured their spots to requalify.  

“In America, our sports culture is against retroactively changing things,” Xiao said. “Will it mean we’re sending the absolute best team we can at that point in time? I can’t guarantee that. But I think it’s just a matter of fairness for those athletes who have gone through the grind of qualifying and earned that spot.” 

Which athletes have the most to lose with Olympics postponed? 

The postponement of the Olympics is most cruel for aging athletes who were trying to extend their careers long enough to make one more medal run. It could be the equivalent of a cancellation for them rather than just a delay of their dreams.

Five-time Olympic medalist Justin Gatlin had already announced that the 2020 season would be his last. Does the 38-year-old sprinter have young enough legs and strong enough will to try to push back his retirement another year? 

Sandi Morris, a silver medalist in the pole vault in 2016, is in the prime of her athletic career, but it’s a different story for her husband. Tyrone Smith, a 35-year-old long jumper, thinks he might be able to squeeze one more year of training out of his legs. 

For the past couple years, Morris and Smith have lived in different states while pursuing their Olympic aspirations. Morris trains with her coach in Arkansas while Smith trains at the University of Texas and attends business school there. 

“To think of all he has gone through to continue chasing this dream, and to imagine it all being for nothing, just breaks my heart,” Morris told Yahoo Sports. “And I know there are many others like him who moved their entire lives around to keep after this dream.”

Indeed, declining physical performance isn’t the only reason some athletes viewed the 2020 Olympics as a last hurrah. Many had already decided to go back to school next year, to begin a new career or to focus on starting a family. With the Olympics postponed, they’ll have to decide whether to postpone those life plans as well.   

Do any athletes have anything to gain?

The postponement of the Olympics could actually benefit injured athletes who weren’t expected to recover by this summer or teenage phenoms who are just now beginning to reach their potential. 

Could record-breaking 19-year-old sprinter Matthew Boling be better prepared to challenge the likes of Noah Lyles and Christian Coleman in 2021? Or could 17-year-old swimming sensation Gretchen Walsh be ready for the world’s stage by then?

And what about 15-year-old gymnast Konnor McClain, the 2019 U.S. junior all-around silver medalist? She was a month too young for Tokyo 2020. If the age-minimum cutoff is shifted to 2021, could McClain take the world by storm next year?

What other ramifications of postponement are there for athletes?

The financial ramifications are a huge concern for Olympic athletes whose sport is their career.

Olympic athletes typically make a lot of their money three ways: Appearance fees from competing at meets, prize money from performing well, and revenue provided by sponsors in exchange for flaunting their gear. That income is likely to dry up this year with most pre-Olympic competitions already canceled and the Olympics postponed.

One big question many athletes are wondering is how much sponsors will pay them this season. Many track and field athletes, for example, have shoe contracts that call for a reduction in pay if they don't compete in a certain number of competitions and qualify for the Olympics, neither of which is likely to be possible this calendar year.

"I'm waiting curiously for the shoe companies to publicly address this issue," Morris said. "I have no idea what my sponsors are going to do if a season basically doesn't happen this year. Hundreds of track athletes are in the same shoes."

With his meet calendar between now and the summer empty, American distance runner Paul Chelimo wouldn’t have any money coming in were it not for his sponsors, Nike and Xendurance, sticking with him. There was genuine emotion and gratitude in the 2016 Olympic silver medalist's voice last week when he said, “I don’t know when the next time I’ll be able to race this year is, so my sponsors are my only hope to put food on my table.”

Will tickets be re-sold?

That’s an unanswered question, which Payne, the longtime IOC exec, posed:

“What do you do with all the tickets? Japan’s been so oversubscribed on tickets demand. There’s never been an Olympic Games like it. How do you manage that? Do you give everybody the chance to refund? Do you re-ballot it? You know? Devil in the detail.”

With Olympics in 2021, what else has to be rescheduled?

Olympic sports don’t just go dark in the four-year interims between Games. In fact, two of the biggest, swimming and track and field, have biennial world championships scheduled for July and August of 2021, respectively.

But that, while a hurdle, is far from an insurmountable one. Before the IOC even publicly mentioned the possibility of postponing the Olympics, World Athletics president Sebastian Coe wrote to Bach urging the IOC to postpone. In a statement on Tuesday, the international track and field governing body “welcomed” the decision, and said it “has already been in discussion” with the organizing committee of its own 2021 event about new dates, “including dates in 2022.” Eugene, Oregon will still host.

FINA, swimming’s international governing body, also released a statement saying it “will now work closely with” organizers of its 2021 worlds, set for Fukuoka, Japan, “in order to determine flexibility around the dates of the competition.”

For any international governing body, the Olympics hold more weight than that governing body’s sport-specific championship event. Like track and field and swimming, others will surely be flexible and willing to cooperate. The dominoes on the sports calendar won’t be roadblocks. They’ll begin to fall over the coming weeks and months.

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