A senior member of the International Olympic Committee said Tuesday that if it proves too dangerous to hold the Olympics in Tokyo this summer because of the coronavirus outbreak, organizers are more likely to cancel it altogether than to postpone or move it.
Dick Pound, a former Canadian swimming champion who has been on the IOC since 1978, making him its longest-serving member, estimated there is a three-month window – perhaps a two-month one – to decide the fate of the Tokyo Olympics, meaning a decision could be put off until late May.
“In and around that time, I’d say folks are going to have to ask: 'Is this under sufficient control that we can be confident about going to Tokyo or not?’ " he said in an exclusive interview with The Associated Press.
As the games draw near, he said, “a lot of things have to start happening. You’ve got to start ramping up your security, your food, the Olympic Village, the hotels. The media folks will be in there building their studios.”
If the IOC decides the games cannot go forward as scheduled in Tokyo, “you’re probably looking at a cancellation,” he said.
The viral outbreak that began in China two months ago has infected more than 80,000 people globally and killed more than 2,700, the vast majority of them in China. But the virus has gained a foothold in South Korea, the Middle East and Europe, raising fears of a pandemic. Japan itself has reported four deaths.
Pound encouraged athletes to keep training. About 11,000 are expected for the Olympics, which open July 24, and 4,400 are bound for the Paralympics, which open Aug. 25.
“As far as we all know, you’re going to be in Tokyo,” Pound said. “All indications are at this stage that it will be business as usual. So keep focused on your sport and be sure that the IOC is not going to send you into a pandemic situation.”
Canada women’s soccer coach Kenneth Heiner-Moller says he will leave the question of the coronavirus and Olympics to “whoever is the expert on this.”
“I sincerely hope that they’ll make sure that everyone around the world stays healthy and that something around that coronavirus can be done – I think that’s the most important part,” the Dane told a media conference call Tuesday.
“And obviously we want to participate in the Olympics, and hopefully [the Games are] going to continue. But my concerns are not on that. I hope they know their way around it, the way of making sure all people stay healthy, as healthy as they can be. And then hopefully we’ll continue with the Olympics. But right now it’s not in the forefront of my mind. We’re just continuing as if the Olympics are going to happen anyway.”
The modern Olympics, which date to 1896, have been cancelled only during wartime. The Olympics in 1940 were supposed to be in Tokyo but were called off because of Japan’s war with China and the Second World War. The Rio Games in Brazil went on as scheduled in 2016 despite the outbreak of the Zika virus.
Pound repeated the IOC’s position – that it is relying on consultations with the World Health Organization, a United Nations body, to make any move.
As for the possibility of postponement, he said: “You just don’t postpone something on the size and scale of the Olympics. There’s so many moving parts, so many countries and different seasons, and competitive seasons, and television seasons. You can’t just say, ‘We’ll do it in October.’ "
Pound said moving to another city also seems unlikely “because there are few places in the world that could think of gearing up facilities in that short time to put something on.”
London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey has suggested the British capital as an alternative. Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike suggested the offer was an attempt to use the virus for political purposes.
Pound said he would not favour a scattering of Olympic events to other places around the world because that wouldn’t “constitute an Olympic Games. You’d end up with a series of world championships.” He also said it would be extremely difficult to spread around the various sports over a 17-day period with only a few months’ notice.
Holding the Olympics in Tokyo but postponing them by a few months would be unlikely to satisfy North American broadcasters, whose schedules are full in the fall with American pro football, college football, European soccer, basketball, baseball and ice hockey. Other world broadcasters also have jammed schedules.
“It would be tough to get the kind of blanket coverage that people expect around the Olympic Games,” Pound said.
He also cast doubt on the possibility of a one-year delay. Japan is officially spending US$12.6-billion to organize the Olympics, although a national audit board says the country is spending twice that much.
“You have to ask if you can hold the bubble together for an extra year,” Pound said. “Then, of course, you have to fit all of this into the entire international sports schedule.”
Pound said the IOC has been building up an emergency fund, reported to be about US$1-billion, for unforeseen circumstances to help the IOC and the international sports federations that depend on income from the IOC. About 73 per cent of the IOC’s US$5.7-billion income in a four-year Olympic cycle comes from broadcast rights.
“It’s not an insurable risk, and it’s not one that can be attributed to one or the other of the parties,” he said. “So everybody takes their lumps. There would be a lack of revenue on the Olympic movement side.”
Pound said the future of the Tokyo Games is largely out of the IOC’s hands and depends on the course the virus takes.
“If it gets to be something like the Spanish flu,” Pound said, referring to the deadly pandemic early in the 20th century that killed millions, “at that level of lethality, then everybody’s got to take their medicine.”
With files from The Canadian Press