Global sports responded to virus, why won’t the Olympics?

People walk past the Olympic rings near the New National Stadium in Tokyo on March 4. (AP pic)

NEW YORK: The National Basketball Association, Formula One, the English Premier League – all have cancelled, postponed or banned spectators from sporting events in recent days, as health experts caution against crowded public gatherings.

The growing disruptions at the highest level of global sportscast growing doubt that the 2020 Summer Olympics, scheduled to begin July 24 in Tokyo, can continue as planned.

Every day brings new rumours and speculation about cancellation or delays, followed by firm statements from local and international organizers denying that any such measures are under consideration.

“The International Olympic Committee (IOC) seems stuck, paralysed by the possibility that the Olympics, which are its money spigot, might get winched shut because of factors outside its control,” said Jules Boykoff, a politics professor at Pacific University Oregon and author of several books on the Games.

The fact that a growing number of qualifying events have been cancelled means that preparations are already falling behind, he added.

Early Thursday, after the World Health Organisation elevated the outbreak to pandemic status, Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike said the declaration would affect the debate about the Olympics, but there’s no way the games would be called off.

Chief Cabinet Secretary Yoshihide Suga also reaffirmed that plans remain unchanged.

But as the coronavirus crisis has escalated globally, high-level officials associated with the Olympics and global sports have made it clear they are thinking about it.

Dick Pound, a member of the IOC since 1978, suggested organisers have until late May to make a final decision.

Haruyuki Takahashi, an executive board member of the Japanese Olympic Committee, has become outspoken about the need to plan for different scenarios.

He’s told local media that he planned to propose a postponement, that May would be too late for a decision, and that the local committee needed to think ahead of the IOC.

“A cancellation or delay to the Tokyo games is inconceivable,” Japanese Olympics minister Seiko Hashimoto said early Wednesday in a parliamentary committee, responding to the first round of Takahashi’s comments.

“A delay is not under consideration.”

If the Games were to be cancelled, it would be only the fourth time in more than 120 years of Olympics history and the first in peacetime.

Planning for the Tokyo Games has been underway for a decade and cost nearly US$6 billion; some 11,000 athletes and 600,000 spectators had been expected to attend.

For Boykoff, a former professional football player, organisers’ failure to address the possibility of changes to the event “exposes the notion that these are much more than a sports event.”

“They are eminently political through and through and perhaps these days as much about economics as they are about sports,” he added.