With just over two months until the start of the Tokyo Olympics, the prospect of a cancellation looms large.
As Japan battles the fourth wave of coronavirus infections and a state of emergency remains in effect in Tokyo and other prefectures until the end of the month, there is growing pressure from health experts, business leaders, and the Japanese public to cancel the Games.
The Tokyo Medical Practitioners Association, an organization of approximately 6,000 doctors in Tokyo, penned a letter calling for a cancellation last week, and a petition garnering 350,000 signatures in nine days in support of cancellation has been submitted to organizers.
Last week, the CEO of leading Japanese e-commerce company Rakuten said that holding the Games amid the pandemic is a “suicide mission” – one of the most strident voices of opposition so far from a business leader.
The International Olympic Committee (IOC) has remained steadfast in its belief that the Olympics, which had already been postponed by a year due to the pandemic, will be able to begin on July 23.
Organizers have published a playbook, the final version of which is expected next month, outlining a series of countermeasures that they say will ensure the Games can take place safely and securely, even as thousands of athletes from around the world descend on Tokyo.
With the Winter Olympics in Beijing now less than a year away, officials have also stated that the Games will not be postponed again, and that cancellation would be the most likely option if the Games are deemed unsafe to hold from the rescheduled start date in July.
The IOC has the right to terminate the host city contract, which outlines the legal agreement between the IOC and Tokyo to host the Games, if “the safety of participants in the Games would be seriously threatened or jeopardized for any reason whatsoever.”
According to legal expert Jack Anderson, the cancellation is likely due to mounting pressure on the organizers – a “political decision” rather than a strictly legal one.
“It’s the safety of those athletes, which are a primary concern of the IOC, the safety of the Japanese public, the primary concern of the organizing committee and the Japanese political establishment, which is the key,” Anderson, a professor of Law teaching at Melbourne Law School in Australia, tells CNN Sport.
“And this is not an ordinary one-off event. It is a huge multidisciplinary event across many different stadia.”
Anderson adds that if the host city contract is terminated, the risks and losses will fall primarily on the organizing committee, which is required to obtain insurance for the Games.
“In that way, it’s straightforward,” he says. “But of course, in other ways, it’s not straightforward because it’s not simply a contract between the International Olympic Committee and the host organizing.
“We have sponsorship contracts, we have broadcasting, we have hospitality, we have a range — a contractual web of liabilities — that are in place here. It’s a huge contractual issue and would have huge insurance ramifications if it were to not go ahead.”
According to a January Reuters report, insurers face a $2-3 billion loss if the Olympics are cancelled, the largest ever claim in the global event cancellation market.
And, even with insurance payouts, the financial impact of cancelling the Games could be significant for organizers, given that broadcasting rights account for nearly 75 per cent of the IOC’s total funding.
“The International Olympic Committee — while it is now a very rich organization — its wealth is predicated on its primary asset, which is hosting the Games,” Anderson explains.
“Therefore, not to have a Games, and the knock-on effect that that has for sponsorship, for broadcasting, would be huge. It would be difficult to measure that. But I think you could comfortably say that insurance alone would not cover it in terms of reputation and economic damage.”
A cancelled Olympics would arguably have the greatest impact on athletes.
World Athletics president Seb Coe told CNN Sport last week that 70% of those pursuing Olympic participation will only have one chance to compete at what is likely to be the pinnacle of their sporting careers.
To cancel the Games, Coe said, would be to “discard a generation of athletes who have spent over half their young lives in pursuit of this one moment.”
Another issue for athletes is that countries around the world are at various stages of pandemic recovery and have varying access to vaccines, despite Coe’s prediction that “the majority of the world will be at the Games.”
With public pressure mounting to cancel the Games, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga stated last week that he has “never prioritized (the) Olympics.”
“My priority has been to protect the lives and health of the Japanese population. We must first prevent the spread of the virus,” he said.
The Olympics have been cancelled three times before, in 1916, 1940, and 1944, all due to world wars.