07 Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games
For showing how to press pause on a major event
Even the world’s greatest athletes couldn’t compete against the coronavirus. On 24 March, the Japanese prime minister and the president of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) postponed the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics until next year due to the global pandemic. The decision marked the first time the modern Olympics have ever been pushed back.
While the need to play a COVID-19 waiting game might have seemed obvious, the decision came with a slew of logistical questions. With no blueprint to consult, the IOC and the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee established a task force called Here We Go to sort through myriad project details:
The well-being of athletes was at the forefront of the decision to postpone the 2020 Games. But the delay also raised concerns among potential Olympians, including who would be eligible to participate in 2021. The Here We Go team moved quickly to quell anxiety, announcing within two weeks that all athletes who had already qualified for the games would remain in 2021. It also gave permission to National Olympic Committees and International Sports Federations to extend both the upper and lower age limits to allow additional athletes to participate if they qualify in either 2020 or 2021. The Olympic Solidarity programs, including scholarships and other forms of athlete support, have also been extended through 2021.
Coordinating Across Sports
The sports world revolves around the Olympics, with many major events scheduled around the games’ four-year cycle. Yet while most of the International Sports Federations supported the decision to postpone the 2020 Games, many questions remain, including around rescheduling qualifying events.
Pushing back the games also creates a potential pileup with the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, China, slated to begin just six months after the new 2021 Tokyo dates. IOC officials have called the proximity of the two events an advantage, arguing the summer games will help drum up excitement for their winter counterpart.
Delaying the Olympics requires ensuring that venues of choice will still be available in 2021. The Here We Go team is dealing with three main types of locations: arenas typically dedicated to sporting events; temporary facilities built specifically for the Olympics; and other buildings, particularly convention centers, repurposed for Olympic events.
Given the IOC’s coordination with sporting organizations in Tokyo and beyond, the team is confident the first two types of venues will remain available. It’s now working out solutions with operators of the third-party venues.
There’s also the Olympic Village, the high-profile home base for athletes during the games that includes 18,000 beds, medical facilities, a dining hall, recreational amenities, and a gym for use by the Olympians and their support teams. The problem: Following the 2020 Games the housing development was slated to transform into a new Tokyo community, with the construction of schools, recreation areas and more already scheduled for next year. Here We Go is negotiating now with developers to adjust contracts to account for the new Olympic timeline.
The Search for Funding
Cost estimates for the postponement range from US$2 billion to US$6 billion, per one Associated Press report—on top of the official US$12.6 billion budget, which most agree is a low estimate. The IOC executive board approved a financial envelope of up to US$800 million in late May, but it’s not clear how the remaining gap will be funded.
Olympics finances traditionally rely in huge part on advertising, much of which is funneled through official broadcasters—who have been left with a huge programming hole for 2020. That has forced the Here We Go project team to work out agreements for revamped payment schedules—which tightens cash flow further.
The IOC has pointed to its 2018 New Norm plan, designed to increase efficiency and save money when planning for games, as one reason it can absorb some of the extra costs generated by the postponement.
The Tokyo 2020 team had planned a workforce of 150,000 staff, volunteers and contractors. Most had been recruited and many were already working when the postponement announcement came. The team plans to retain as many of these people as possible, though it has acknowledged some may not be available for the new dates.
Like many other operators around the world, the leaders and staff at the IOC and Tokyo 2020 had to coordinate all of these moving parts while working from home. The IOC, for example, held its first-ever fully remote gathering in May.
At least one big decision has been made: The games will still be called the 2020 Olympics, even if they happen in 2021, and the Olympic flame will remain in Tokyo, per the IOC. “The leaders agreed that the Olympic Games in Tokyo could stand as a beacon of hope to the world during these troubled times and that the Olympic flame could become the light at the end of the tunnel in which the world finds itself at present,” the group said.