After weeks of all but brushing off suggestions that it should postpone the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, the International Olympic Committee on Sunday announced that it would spend the next four weeks mulling over its alternatives.
In a statement released just days after IOC President Thomas Bach trotted out his now-familiar “the show must go on” bromides for the New York Times, the governing body indicated that it will “step up its scenario-planning” for the Summer Olympics, a process that could result in the modification of “existing operational plans for the Games to go ahead on 24 July 2020.” Over the course of the next month, the IOC said it will continue to monitor the “rapidly changing development of the health situation around the world and in Japan” in order to come to a decision that is in the best interests of the athletes, spectators, on-site laborers, broadcasters and organizers.
As with all other recent IOC communiques, Sunday’s bulletin made it plain that an outright cancelation of the 17-day sporting event is simply not an option. Such a move, according to the executive board, “would not solve any of the problems or help anybody; therefore, cancelation is not on the agenda.”
At about the same time the IOC made its in-house deadline public, Bach published an open letter to the 11,000-plus athletes hoping to make the trip to Japan this summer.
“We have started detailed discussions today to complete our assessment of the rapid development of the worldwide health situation and its impact on the Olympic Games, including a scenario of postponement,” Bach wrote. “As successful athletes, you know that we should never give up, even if the chance to succeed appears to be very small. Our commitment to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 is based on this experience. It is our experience as athletes that you must always be ready to adapt to new situations.”
Bach reiterated the IOC board’s sentiment about the implausibility of calling off the Games of the XXXII Olympiad altogether, but he also acknowledged that the speed with which the coronavirus is spreading has made planning for an event of such magnitude next to impossible. “What we all share…is tremendous uncertainty,” Bach wrote. “This uncertainty rocks our nerves and raises or strengthens doubts about a positive future; it destroys hope. Some even have to fear for their very existence. This uncertainty stems from the fact that, at this moment, nobody can really make fully reliable statements about the duration of this fight against the virus.”
While the IOC’s defiance in the face of the coronavirus had been unwavering, the counter narrative has been just as steadfast. Last week, a former athlete who sits on the board of the Japan Olympic Committee called for the Summer Games to be postponed, and on Friday the USA Track and Field and USA Swimming federations petitioned the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee to advocate for a delay. (USA Swimming’s request was particularly specific, urging the USOPC to push the IOC to reschedule Tokyo 2020 by one full year.)
Aside from the obvious pandemic-related fears, much of the dissent that’s been directed toward the IOC has to do with the inability of athletes to train properly for the Summer Games. For example, after a Bay Area lockdown forced Stanford University to shutter its Avery Aquatic Center a week ago, swimmer and five-time gold medalist Katie Ledecky hasn’t so much as dipped a toe in a pool. Outside of the hammer throw, very few Olympic events allow for the hermetic solitude mandated by life during a social-distancing pandemic.
As the athletes scramble to find safe places to maintain their Olympic-caliber conditioning, the TV marketplace braces for what could prove to be yet another jolt to the U.S. sports-media pipeline. Earlier this month, NBCUniversal said its Tokyo ad sales commitments had passed the $1.25 billion mark, and in the absence of the NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball, the Summer Games represent a somewhat-distant promise that science and the human capacity to withstand hardship might return us all to whatever it was we used to consider “normal.”
Given the dire situation in New York—the Empire State as of this afternoon has confirmed 15,168 cases of the virus, up from 4,812 just 24 hours earlier; of these, more than half have been diagnosed in New York City—NBC’s customary celebration of the start of the 100-day Olympics countdown will be more of a virtual acknowledgment. Hundreds of athletes won’t take to Times Square on April 15 for a festive kickoff, and you aren’t likely to see Ledecky and her fellow champions yukking it up with Jimmy Fallon that same night. At least not in meatspace; like so many other late-night entertainers, the “Tonight Show” host has brought his production in-house. Literally.
The IOC’s self-imposed four-week deadline effectively coincides with the promotional window during which Olympic advertisers tend to launch their Olympic activations. In a month’s time, in the unlikely event that conditions have improved sufficiently for Lausanne to issue an all-clear and announce that the Games will begin on July 24 as planned, marketers needn’t miss a stitch. How those same advertisers might fare should the IOC postpone Tokyo 2020 is another story altogether.
But who needs another dram of gloom and doom after everything that’s gone down over the last few weeks? Here’s the best-case scenario for the athletes, the marketers, the networks and everyone simply trying to get through this in one piece: After months of sports-free quarantine, a healthy, happy Tokyo Games would give us all something to rally around; for Americans and hundreds of millions of survivors around the globe, the Olympics could serve as an inoculation against despair.
We’ll have our answer in four weeks. In a moment when every day feels like 10, that may seem like an unfathomable stretch of time. It’s not. Now go wash your hands. And stop touching your face.