Could the Coronavirus Outbreak Put the 2020 Olympics in Jeopardy? It’s Possible


TOKYO, JAPAN - 2020/02/17: View of the Olympic Rings near the new National Stadium in Kasumigaoka, Shinjuku, Tokyo, Japan.The stadium will serve as the main stadium for the opening and closing ceremonies and for the track and field events at the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games and Paralympic Games. (Photo by Stanislav Kogiku/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

As coronavirus continues to spread globally, officials must now consider the possibility that the virus could impact the upcoming Summer Olympics in Tokyo. Although Japan is not one of the hardest-hit countries at the moment, at least one member of the International Olympic Committee suspects that, if Toyko is unable to host the Olympics, they simply won’t go on at all.

The IOC’s longest-serving member, former Canadian swimmer Dick Pound, told the Associated Press that, if the region isn’t deemed safe by May, it’s more likely that the Olympics would be cancelled, rather than postponed or moved.

“In and around that time [late May], 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. However, for now, Pound encouraged athletes to continue training as though the Games will go forward as planned. “As far as we all know, you’re going to be in Tokyo. 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,” he said.

From an outsider’s perspective, it might seem more logical to move the Games to another location if Tokyo were deemed unsafe, or simply postpone them until the danger has passed, but Pound believes the IOC would be unlikely to exercise those options.

“You just don’t postpone something on the size and scale of the Olympics,” he explained to the AP. “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.'” Similarly, moving the Games to another city would be nearly impossible “because there are few places in the world that could think of gearing up facilities in that short time to put something on.” The only options would be cities that have very recently hosted a Summer Olympics — think: Rio de Janeiro or London — and even that would be difficult to pull off on such short notice, since most Olympic venues are put into use for other purposes after the Olympics have ended.

At this point, it’s very much a waiting game to see what happens with the coronavirus and how it continues to affect travel to and from Asia. It’s worth noting that the most recent Summer Olympics did go ahead despite a virus outbreak; in 2016, similar questions were raised about the Rio Olympics due to the Zika virus, but the competition ultimately went ahead. If Pound is correct, though, there’s only a couple of months left before a decision will have to be made.

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