Opinion: Coronavirus already creating chaos for Tokyo Olympics

The speculation about this summer’s Tokyo Olympic Games is coming fast and furious now. Across just a few hours on Tuesday, Japan’s Olympics minister said the coronavirus outbreak could lead to the postponement of the Games this summer, while the International Olympic Committee answered by saying it remains committed to staging the Games as scheduled July 24 to August 9.

Who knows what Wednesday will bring.

This kind of confusion should come as absolutely no surprise. The story of the coronavirus is both ominous and fast-changing. It was just last week that veteran IOC member Dick Pound told the Associated Press that if it proved too dangerous to hold the Tokyo Olympics, organizers were more likely to cancel the Games than postpone or move them. He added that if such a decision were to be made, it would have to come by late May.

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The Olympics are scheduled to be held in Tokyo from July 24 to August 9, although officials in Japan said Tuesday that the Games could be postponed until later in the year. (Photo: Jae C. Hong, AP)

What was shocking last week seems like normal conversation this week. The chaos is utterly predictable. How could it not be? No one has any idea what is going to happen with a virus that has spread rapidly from country to country, leaving thousands dead in its wake, so of course the answers of Olympic officials from around the world are swinging from one extreme to the other.

Until a final decision about the fate of the Tokyo Games is made, expect more of this. IOC spokesperson Mark Adams actually said this Tuesday afternoon: "No, we've made a decision. And the decision is that the Games go ahead. That was made some time ago. We see no reason to change that decision. There we are."

Except everyone knows that's not the final word. No one has a clue, and there’s nothing new about that in the Olympic world. A decision certainly doesn’t need to be made today, or even in the next few weeks. 

There will be all kinds of sporting events held between now and Pound’s drop-dead date of late May, both domestic and international, including the men’s and women’s NCAA basketball tournaments, the world figure skating championships in Montreal and the Masters golf tournament.

The IOC, Tokyo organizers and various Olympic stakeholders, including the American television rights-holder NBC, can certainly take their lead from what happens with those events.

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As we take a snapshot of the landscape at the moment, the options for the Tokyo Olympics seem to be these:

► The Olympics go on as scheduled July 24 to August 9.

► The Olympics are cancelled for just the fourth time in the summer since the rebirth of the modern Games in 1896. The reason the other three times? World Wars I and II.

► The Olympics are postponed for a few months but still held in 2020, as Japan’s Olympics minister suggested. The disruptions would be massive to the athletes and the TV rights-holders, among others, but if that’s the only answer that would save the Olympics, perhaps it becomes palatable.

► There’s a fourth option: Hold the Olympics when they are scheduled, but without spectators. It’s an awful thought right now. No one wants that. But how would that idea look in another month or so if the coronavirus outbreak does not abate?

For most of the world, the Olympics are a TV show. This option would allow the show to go on, just as the Tokyo Marathon did last weekend, through mostly empty city streets.

At the moment, the concept of a spectator-less Olympics is unfathomable – until it’s not.

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