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Infection rates are rising in the United States and parts of Europe are back in lockdown. Yet the International Olympic Committee president, Thomas Bach, said the Games would take measures to go on.
Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, at Tokyo’s National Stadium during a visit to the city this week to spread optimism about the Summer Olympics.Credit…Pool photo by Behrouz Mehri
- Nov. 19, 2020Updated 11:57 a.m. ET
TOKYO — Thomas Bach, the president of the International Olympic Committee, this week articulated nothing but optimism for a glorious Summer Games next year in Tokyo, where the world, in his view, will reunite after conquering the coronavirus pandemic.
The Games, he said during a visit to Tokyo, “would be the light at the end of this dark tunnel.”
Yet nine months after the I.O.C. and organizers in Tokyo agreed to postpone the 2020 Summer Games for one year, the level of uncertainty surrounding the event has barely waned, even as hopes for a successful Olympics have never been higher.
The pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna have announced successful trials for their coronavirus vaccines, with initial distribution expected to begin next month. But no one can say how many Olympians, spectators or volunteers will have access to a vaccine by next summer.
Will Japan open its borders, which have been largely closed since April, and allow the friends and families of Olympians, or any fans for that matter, to attend the Games? Will the Olympic Village, where most of the athletes and support staff usually live during the Games, function as a kind of bubble, with access to the city cut off? Will athletes have to quarantine either in their home countries ahead of the Games or in Japan once they arrive?
Organizers said Wednesday that they might limit the number of nights athletes could stay in the Olympic Village, asking them to leave immediately after their competitions because that is when athletes tend to venture into the city to celebrate. The opening ceremony is scheduled for July 23.
The Games’ organizers next month plan to outline the range of countermeasures they intend to pursue, but everyone involved knows that everything is subject to change, requiring those aiming to attend to be able to pivot from one plan to another likely up until the final months.
“Anything I say today is probably going to change tomorrow,” said Lindsay Mintenko, the managing director for the U.S. national swim team. “We have heard very little from Tokyo on their countermeasures.”
As for vaccinations, preliminary distribution plans in the United States place healthy young adults last in line, unless they work in health care or education, or are considered an essential worker. Olympians are not.
“We are working under the assumption that not everyone will have a vaccine,” Mintenko said.
And yet, Bach this week sketched a scenario of a halcyon and healthy Games, sending an unsubtle but important message to corporate sponsors to plan on being in Tokyo in July.
Speaking at a news conference on Monday after meeting with Japan’s prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, and the Tokyo governor, Yuriko Koike, Bach seemed to float the idea that the I.O.C. could pay for vaccines for visitors to Japan, although he said the inoculations would not be a requirement for attending the Olympics next summer. I.O.C. officials later sought to clarify that the organization had no concrete plan to acquire or distribute a vaccine.
“If a vaccine should be available, then the I.O.C. would take this cost and then we can cooperate with the National Olympic Committees because we see this effort as a sign of respect for our gracious Japanese hosts,” Bach said. “We want to make sure that as many people as possible coming to Japan on the occasion of the Games accept a vaccine so that the Japanese people can feel confident and protected.”
Japan has already hosted numerous professional sporting events with spectators, albeit not to the full capacity of stadiums or arenas. Fans have been required to wear masks and refrain from loud cheering and have been seated at a social distance.
Japan, where ubiquitous mask wearing has long been a popular strategy for avoiding infection, has been one of the more successful industrialized nations in combating the coronavirus. Even with a population of roughly 125 million and its proximity to China, the origin of the virus, Japan has recorded just over 120,000 coronavirus cases and just under 2,000 deaths.
Concerns, however, are rising, as it is experiencing a third wave, with infections and deaths slowly increasing and the government considering the reintroduction of stricter measures.
In a briefing in Tokyo this month, Toshiro Muto, chief executive of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee, said that recent experiments allowing larger crowds than have been permitted in recent months at Tokyo Dome and Yokohama Stadium had given Olympic officials confidence that they could put enough measures in place to curtail the spread of the coronavirus.
A decision on spectators from overseas — how many to admit and under what conditions — will be made by the spring, Mr. Muto said.
Some measures being considered include requiring visitors to take a test for the virus before getting on a plane and screening them upon arrival at Japan’s airports, rather than requiring the standard 14-day quarantine.
Public polls in Japan suggest that support for the Olympics is mixed. A survey by the Kyodo News wire service last month showed that about 38 percent supported hosting the Games next summer while close to 32 percent said they should be postponed again. Nearly a quarter said they should be canceled altogether.
“If you look at other countries, you can’t be so optimistic,” said Jun Saito, a senior research fellow at the Japan Center for Economic Research. “If you allow more people to move around across borders, then that’s going to worsen the situation. It won’t improve the situation anyway.”
Japan has spent more than $12 billion preparing for the Olympics, though some estimates have put the actual figure at roughly $26 billion, including infrastructure projects. Postponing the Games for a year has cost organizers more than $1 billion. The I.O.C. doubled its contribution to Tokyo organizers to $1.6 billion, to help defray the costs.
The overall budget includes $800 million from sales of some 7.8 million in tickets. For a typical Summer Games, overseas customers can account for roughly 30 percent of ticket sales.
It’s hard to gauge just how substantial the financial hit to Japan will be with a dearth of overseas travelers to the Olympics.
Jesper Koll, who heads the investment firm WisdomTree’s Japan office, said a traditional Olympics would have produced about $10 billion in economic activity. Koll called that a “rounding error” for Japan’s $5 trillion economy. But for organizers it is a significant justification for the cost of staging the Games.
Alan Dizdarevic, whose company, CoSport, handles Olympic ticket sales for the United States, Australia and six other countries, said that although Tokyo organizers offered refunds early in the pandemic, the vast majority of people who bought tickets decided to keep at least some of them.
CoSport does not release specific figures, but, Dizdarevic said: “At this point after the returns and new purchases, the number of spectators who are holding tickets for Tokyo 2020, from the countries in which we sell tickets, is slightly lower than that before the pandemic. However, as long as conditions allow, we expect the U.S. to have a strong showing, with the number of Americans attending Tokyo 2020 likely to eclipse the number who attended Rio 2016 and London 2012.”
Michael Lynch, who previously led Visa’s global sponsorship programs and remains close with several Olympic sponsors, said companies were still holding out hope that they would be able to bring hundreds of clients and customers to the Games.
“The smart ones all have extensive contingency plans,” Lynch said. “Bach is saying the right words so there is a sense of optimism in the sponsor community.”
Optimism, though, can go only so far, especially in the United States, which usually takes more than 500 athletes to the Games.
Sports leaders in the United States and elsewhere are pursuing a number of alternative plans based on a range of scenarios. Some alternatives involve immediately putting an athlete who qualifies for the Olympics in a controlled environment, though that would be difficult for track and field athletes, who generally compete in Europe in the weeks leading up to the Olympics.
Other plans might require cutting back on who competes in the Olympic trials. Some 2,000 swimmers normally participate in them, even though no more than about 75 to 100, at most, have a realistic chance of making the team.
Everyone is dreading the nightmare possibility of a superstar like Katie Ledecky, the world’s most dominant swimmer, getting infected just ahead of the trials, making it impossible for her to compete and make the team.
“We are constantly working with our doctors and coaches,” said Mintenko, the U.S.A. Swimming director. “The question is what is the best and safest way to keep athletes healthy and conducive to fast swimming in Tokyo.”
Tariq Panja, Makiko Inoue, Hikari Hida and Hisako Ueno contributed reporting.
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