• On Monday, Tomahiko Taniguchi, special advisor to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet, told the BBC that the final solution rests with the IOC.
• Top sports lawyer John Mehrzad QC explains that it will be crucial for litigation purposes who it is that effectively pulls the trigger, because whoever does could open themselves up to potential allegations of breach of the host-city contract.
Even the Olympics is not immune. It now seems almost certain that Tokyo 2020 will be postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic sweeping the world.
But as the IOC gives itself another four weeks to mull over a delay, what forces are at play behind the biggest peacetime decision world sport has ever seen? Why do they need so long to do what most now see as the only option? And what will the fallout be?
On Tuesday afternoon, the British Olympic Association (BOA) will add their voice to those demanding a postponement, following an emergency conference call with UK Sport, performance directors, and representatives of TeamGB athletes.
Even an actual withdrawal has not been ruled out, depending on the strength of feeling among participants.
Ben Hawes, chair of the TeamGB athletes’ commission, told BBC Sport he would present a 'strong viewpoint' that postponement is the only course of action to take, for the health and wellbeing of athletes.
Several National Olympic Committees (NOCs) from around the world have already requested a postponement, while Canada and Australia have gone further still by saying they will not send their athletes if it begins this year.
IOC member Dick Pound says postponement ‘has been decided’, and it will most likely be until 2021, but told USA Today the ‘parameters’ have not been finalised, and ‘it will come in stages’. Both the IOC and the Tokyo 2020 organisers have tried to explain how they need time to consider the undoubted complexity of a delayed Olympics.
On Monday, Tomahiko Taniguchi, special advisor to Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s cabinet, told the BBC that the final solution rests with the IOC.
He said that, given the complexities involved, ‘Lausanne must take a few weeks examining scenarios [for a possible postponement] but it is not Tokyo’s decision’.
But there has been significant criticism from athletes, including 200m world champion Dina Asher-Smith, about potentially having to wait another four weeks, and Hawes told BBC Sport this timeframe “does seem too long”.
‘A game of chicken’?
According to well-placed sources, we may now be witnessing a ‘game of chicken’ over who blinks first between the IOC and the Tokyo 2020 organisers, due to the commercial and legal ramifications that could follow such a decision.
Top sports lawyer John Mehrzad QC explains that it will be crucial for litigation purposes who it is that effectively pulls the trigger, because whoever does could open themselves up to potential allegations of breach of the host-city contract.
“The party that ‘cancels’ or ‘postpones’ that agreement, unless mutually agreed by the other party, will put itself in breach of contract and expose itself to huge [billions of dollars] damages claims,” he said.
The recipient of any claim could point to the coronavirus pandemic being a 'force majeure', or ‘Act of God’ — though Mehrzad points out that an insurer would be likely to say it must be impossible for the Games to be staged for such a case to stand.
At present, there is no World Health Organization diktat saying that the Olympics cannot be staged.
The IOC has the contractual right to cancel the Games on safety grounds, and is protected from any claims for damages by the host city in such an event.
However, the host-city contract does not refer to postponements, and it is understood that the IOC would much rather it was Japan that ultimately took the decision.
The boycotts from certain major NOCs could therefore play a key role in clearing this logjam, because not having the participation of Team Canada and the Australian delegation would make it an incomplete Games.
The IOC and local organisers could say that this has meant it is no longer possible to proceed with the current schedule, and could provide some protection in the face of any legal cases and insurance claims from the multitude of commercial entities with contracts tied to the event, from broadcasters to sponsors.
Unprecedented and unquantifiable
While a postponement may be inevitable, organising it will not be simple, and there has been some sympathy for the IOC’s predicament as they seek a solution to an unprecedented challenge that is not of their making.
Ricardo Fort, head of sponsorship at Coca Cola, one of the Olympics’ key commercial partners, said: “The IOC is taking the right steps to proper evaluate their options. Whatever decisions they make, it will be based on facts (and not on the pressure of any federation... no matter the federation or country.)”
Meanwhile, in Japan even though polls show a majority of people now expect a postponement, there will be fears that such a decision, no matter how understandable in the circumstances, will amount to a huge loss of face. After all, no Olympics has ever been rescheduled. The only cancelled Games have occurred in wartime.
Both the IOC and Tokyo 2020 organisers have highlighted that postponing a Games that has a budget of £10.8bn ($12.6bn/1.35trillion yen) comes with “many, many challenges”.
In a statement, Tokyo 2020 said: “As we seek to address this unique situation, close coordination with many partners, including the Tokyo Metropolitan Government, the Government of Japan, Tokyo 2020 marketing partners, broadcasters, suppliers and contractors, will be essential.”
The IOC, meanwhile, pointed out that there have been “millions of nights” booked in hotels, which may not be available for a rescheduled Games. There is also the question of whether the Athletes’ Village and other key venues will still be available given pre-agreed deals with private occupiers, and the need to find tenants. Can Japan really afford for these venues to remain empty for another year? Will a new Athletes’ Village need to be built?
However, some within the Olympic movement fear that by appearing to many to be ponderous and out of touch with athletes’ concerns, with each day that passes, significant damage is being done to the IOC’s brand at a time when it is already concerned about attracting future host cities, and athletes feel left in limbo.
After all, as recently as March 4 in Lausanne following an executive board meeting, Bach remarkably claimed the words ‘postponement’ and ‘cancellation’ had not even been mentioned during discussions.
Given the relentless speed of the outbreak, that seemed at best naive and at worst downright negligent to some. Maybe Bach’s hands were tied by Japanese partners loathe to even contemplate a change of plan. Almost certainly a Plan B was in fact being discussed but to many it gave the impression of a sports body in an ivory tower and in denial.
And it may be that the IOC now has to dip into its significant reserves to help bail out the many international sports federations that depend on financial handouts thanks to the £5bn revenues generated from each Olympic cycle, and which now looks set to be delayed by a year. Some of these federations will have insurance to mitigate the impact of this shock. But others will not and could face a worrying future.
The athlete voice
Several athletes have been keen to stress that they are the key stakeholders in an Olympics and the previous messaging from the IOC to keep preparing as normal risked putting them and their families at risk.
The competitor-led movement Global Athlete has called for a postponement, saying ‘athletes do not have the ability to appropriately prepare for these Games and their health and safety must come first’.
Before tomorrow’s conference call, Hawes said: “My hope is that we’ll come out of tomorrow with a much clearer picture and a consistent picture across athlete feeling and sentiment as well as the sports, the BOA and UK Sport as an organisation.
“From what I’ve heard so far, everyone is pretty much in agreement with the fact that this now really starting to challenge athletes, both mentally and physically, and we need to have a solution.
“The solution won’t come until the IOC makes the decision but the more pressure that can come on from the most critical stakeholders at this point, which is the athletes, the better. We will be going into it with a strong viewpoint which we have been talking to the BOA about for many weeks now.”
When asked to clarify if the position from the Athletes’ Commission was one in favour of a postponement, he said: “Yes I believe that for the health and wellbeing of our athletes we have to have some clarity on a postponement, even if it that needs time to understand when that might be.”
When could it be moved to?
There is no clear consensus on when the Games should be moved to, mainly due to each sport having its own calendar to consider, and the continued uncertainty surrounding when the pandemic may ease.
The example of the Euros being pushed back almost exactly a year could be followed, and currently appears the most likely. The Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) telling its athletes to prepare for a 2021 Games could be particularly telling, given the AOC President John Coates is chair of the IOC’s Coordination Commission for Tokyo.
A 12-month delay of the Olympics would clash with the World Athletics Championships in Eugene, Oregon, which are scheduled to run from 6-15 August 2021. World Athletics has already been in touch with the organisers, who have given assurances that they will look for alternative dates if that proves necessary.
The Championships wouldn’t necessarily need to be pushed back by a year — one option could be bringing it forward by a few months. The Women’s Rugby World Cup will be in New Zealand in July and August. Alternatively, the Games could be postponed to later in 2020, when it would be cooler.
The Olympics have been held in autumn before, and the last Tokyo Olympics, in 1964, were held in October, and the Trinidad and Tobago Olympic Committee told an IOC teleconference last week that rescheduling to October was “practical and reasonable”.
But it would then clash with the European football season and major US sports. And with US media giant NBC being one of the most important voices in these discussions, a delay of a year looks most likely.
Amid the staggering collapse of the global sporting calendar in recent weeks, the Tokyo Games is the last to fall. But this is no mere sports championships. It is a multi-billion pound mega-event that, as we have seen repeatedly, places a huge economic strain on its hosts.
This explains perhaps why there is currently something of a dance going on between those at the top table. Each party is waiting for the other to make the move, while also trying to figure out the safest, and least financially and reputationally damaging, solution. It may not take four weeks, though. With pressure mounting, do not be surprised if the plug is pulled much sooner.