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Why Wait to Postpone Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics?

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Two people wearing masks pass a sign for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics on February 18, 2020. Jae C. Hong/AP Images

By Mike Rowbottom |

As an emblem of our disrupted times, what took place yesterday at Sendai railway station in the Japanese prefecture of Miyagi works disturbingly well.

The Olympic Flame – bound for a Tokyo 2020 Opening Ceremony that looks virtually certain now to be taking place either later this year or, more likely, next year – was put on display. Despite advice to citizens not to congregate to avoid risk of COVID-19 infection.

An estimated 50,000 people turned up.

Confused messages are everywhere as the world, and the world of sport, attempts to formulate the best way of proceeding in the face of a global pandemic.

Let’s turn to the latter arena, and the big question still being asked within it regarding an Olympic and Paralympic Games that is still scheduled, officially, to start on July 24.

Such is the speed of events that a day, never mind a week, is a long time in sports politics.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced recently that it would reach a final decision on the Tokyo 2020 Olympics in four weeks’ time, with postponement set to be assessed.

That stance has been swiftly challenged from a variety of important directions.

The Canadian Olympic Committee and Canadian Paralympic Committee said they had made the “difficult decision” not to travel to Japan in 2020 amid the coronavirus pandemic.

The Australian Olympic Committee has told athletes to prepare for a Tokyo Olympics in the northern hemisphere summer in 2021, after agreeing not to send a team should the Games take place in July.

And in a letter to IOC counterpart Thomas Bach, World Athletics President Sebastian Coe said Tokyo 2020 taking place as planned in July and August would be “neither feasible nor desirable” amid growing international concern.

“I write to you to request that the Games be moved,” Coe wrote in the letter.

Coe cited competition fairness, the impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on training and the increased risk of athletes suffering injuries as the three main reasons why the organisation believes the Olympics should be postponed.

Today saw two more important statements on the issue.

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzō Abe told a parliamentary session, as reported by Kyodo News: “If I’m asked whether we can hold the Olympics at this point in time, I would have to say that the world is not in such a condition…

“If it is difficult to hold the Games in such a way, we have to decide to postpone it, giving top priority to (the health of the) athletes.

“Although the IOC will make the final decision, we are of the same view that cancellation is not an option.”

Meanwhile, The Athletes Association (TAA) – the representative group for track and field athletes set up last year by double Olympic triple jump champion Christian Taylor – has released the results of its survey of more than 4,000 competitors and called for postponement of the Games “much sooner than four weeks’ time”.

The four key responses were as follows: 72 per cent of those surveyed felt the Games should not go ahead as planned; 78 per cent felt they should be postponed; only 12 per cent felt they should be cancelled and 87 per cent said their preparations had been adversely affected because of the coronavirus outbreak.

“Whilst we appreciate being told about the new timeframe, we feel it’s unfair to ask athletes to continue to live and train in this limbo,” the TAA release said. 

“Athletes are risking their health as well as the health of their coaches and families, and indeed wider society, to continue to prepare for an Olympic Games that is likely to be postponed.

“The Olympics is the pinnacle for all competitors in the sport of athletics, but asking athletes to risk their physical and mental health preparing for an Olympic Games in the middle of a pandemic that is crippling the world, is unfair, immoral and shows a huge lack of empathy.”

From the representative body of the key Olympic sport, that is a weighty criticism that must surely be registered by the IOC President Thomas Bach.

As a measure of how track and field athletes were reacting to the latest IOC statement, witness the tweets put out last night by Britain’s world and European 200 metres champion Dina Asher-Smith.

“So wait…does this mean that athletes face up to another FOUR WEEKS of finding ways to fit in training – whilst potentially putting ourselves, coaches, support staff and loved ones at risk just to find out they were going to be postponed anyway!!!…

“So irresponsible. I was really hoping to hear an announcement that they’d postponed it to 2021 this week…”

Greece’s Olympic pole vault champion Katerina Stefanidi responded: “I completely agree. This is (hopefully) the worst four weeks for the virus and its spread and we have to keep training and putting people around us in danger. It makes no sense. Postponement seems inevitable at this point. Why wait?”

One explanation of the delay has been put forward on Twitter by John Mehrzad, Queen’s Counsel, Sports Law and Business Protection.

Mehrzad, who has served as an independent panellist for the Court of Arbitration for Sport, among others, suggests on Twitter that “the party that ‘cancels’ or ‘postpones’ the host city agreement – either the IOC or the hosts –  “unless mutually agreed by the other party, will put itself in breach of contract and expose itself to huge (billions $) of damages claims.

He adds: “It would seem that neither Japan or the IOC which to be the party to pull the ‘trigger’ – ie be the party in breach of the host city agreement, and expose itself to crippling claims. There looks to be a ‘game of chicken’ taking place.

“A postponement may limit damages, but it will still lead to huge claims which will drag on for years.

“There will, ordinarily, be insurance coverage in place for ‘force majeur’ incidents, but insurance will necessarily be capped and even the insurer may litigate over liability.

“Of course, if Japan and the IOC delay any decision, causing as a result athletes to pull out themselves (such as Canada with other countries, probably, to follow) – then they  can argue the host city agreement is ‘frustrated’ as @Olympics cannot take place without athletes.

“The concept of ‘frustration’ is recognised in Swiss Law (then IOC is based in that jurisdiction). There would then be a strong(er) defence to any future damages claims if the @Olympics are cancelled/postponed as a result of a ‘no-show’ by athles.

“We are facing a global human tragedy, but it is uncommercial not to believe that the legal/financial analysis above is not being considered by the IOC and Japan and, at least in part thus far, has not been a factor in decision-making.”

Today I asked an IOC insider that question.

His view was that the bullish statements about the Games going on that were issued a few weeks ago by the IOC were a product of the “Lausanne bubble” – reflecting the organisation’s tendency to be insular and “insensitive” in its communications with the wider world.

Asked about the point raised by Mehrad, he said that this would be something only known to those who had set eyes on the host city contract.

But the latest delay, he believes, is down to the sheer complexity of the logistics involved.

“There are so many pieces involved in a Games, and so many people,” he said.

“For example, there will be a contract in place for the Olympic Village to be sold on to a private owner, who may already have sold the rooms on.

“If there is a delay there will have to be some sort of negotiation done in dealing with the sales.

“And that’s just for the Olympic Village. You will then be looking at the Media Village, and hotel rooms.

“If you have booked venues, you may find they are not available at a later date. Or you may find they are available but at ten times the price, because others have had to be compensated.

“You can take all that uncertainly, and times it by 50.

“That’s why it takes seven years to properly organise an Olympic and Paralympic Games.”

Recalling a conversation he had with a senior civil servant during the preparations for the London 2012 Games, the insider added: “He told me: ‘There is nothing that we will do that is bigger than this other than going to war.'”

It is taking something that feels like war of a different kind to alter the IOC course. But that alteration must surely come sooner rather than later.

Republished with permission from insidethegames.biz.

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