Grappling With Coronavirus, Tokyo Olympic Leaders Have No Good Options


In his twenty years as a guide to organizations vying to host the Olympic Games, Terrence Burns helped write and evaluation official bids and plans from dozens of potential candidate cities.

In all these bids, he mentioned, discussions of potential disruptions to the occasion had been pretty slender in scope: largely pure disasters, like earthquakes or fires, and, extra lately, terrorist assaults.

“I’ve never seen an Olympic organizing committee asked, ‘Are you prepared for a global pandemic?’” Burns mentioned this week.

Now, with slightly below 5 months to go earlier than the scheduled opening of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo on July 24, organizers in Japan and on the International Olympic Committee headquarters in Switzerland are grappling with the coronavirus outbreak, which is threatening to derail the world’s largest sporting occasion.

In getting ready for the Olympics, Japan’s public well being planning till now had targeted on the prevention of measles and rubella, sexually transmitted illnesses and meals poisoning. A brand new illness, just like the coronavirus, was not central to their calculations.

Still, because the virus has begun to unfold by the nation, officers in Japan have performed down strategies that plans for the Games may very well be altered and even canceled. At a information briefing on Wednesday, the chief cupboard secretary, Yoshihide Suga, mentioned that preparations for the Games had been continuing “as planned,” including that the Olympic torch would start its journey to Japan in March in accordance with schedule.

The I.O.C. has additionally declined to entertain the likelihood that the Games won’t happen precisely as deliberate.

But sporting occasions in Japan and elsewhere are already being canceled, as governments attempt to discourage giant gatherings in main cities.

Many who’ve procured tickets and made travel plans at the moment are questioning whether or not they should scrap them.

“We’ve had our first guests calling to ask questions about canceling,” Anbritt Stengele, the president of Sports Traveler, a travel company specializing in packages to worldwide sporting occasions, mentioned this week. “Everyone in the industry is monitoring it and concerned.”

  • Answers to your commonest questions:

    Updated Feb. 26, 2020

    • What is a Coronavirus?
      It is a novel virus named for the crown-like spikes that protrude from its floor. The coronavirus can infect each animals and other people, and may trigger a variety of respiratory diseases from the frequent chilly to extra harmful situations like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.
    • How do I hold myself and others secure?
      Washing your palms incessantly is crucial factor you are able to do, together with staying at home once you’re sick.
    • What if I’m touring?
      The C.D.C. has warned older and at-risk vacationers to keep away from Japan, Italy and Iran. The company additionally has suggested in opposition to all non-essential travel to South Korea and China.
    • Where has the virus unfold?
      The virus, which originated in Wuhan, China, has sickened greater than 80,000 individuals in no less than 33 international locations, together with Italy, Iran and South Korea.
    • How contagious is the virus?
      According to preliminary analysis, it appears reasonably infectious, much like SARS, and might be transmitted by sneezes, coughs and contaminated surfaces. Scientists have estimated that every contaminated particular person may unfold it to someplace between 1.5 and three.5 individuals with out efficient containment measures.
    • Who is working to comprise the virus?
      The World Health Organization officers have been working with officers in China, the place development has slowed. But this week, as confirmed circumstances spiked on two continents, consultants warned that the world will not be prepared for a significant outbreak.

People throughout the Olympic world have begun to ponder, then, what may occur if the coronavirus has not been introduced underneath management earlier than the summer time.

“I’m sure somewhere within the walls of the I.O.C. headquarters there’s a big board with various scenarios on it where people are thinking about, ‘OK, what do we do in a worst-case situation?” mentioned Dick Pound, a longtime I.O.C. member.

There are choices, after all, in accordance with individuals like Burns who’ve labored with the Olympics for many years. None are very interesting.

One theoretical resolution entails transferring the Olympics to a special locale — maybe a metropolis that has lately hosted the Games, like London, or one which could be gearing as much as, like Los Angeles.

It has occurred with different main sports activities occasions. The 2003 Women’s World Cup was relocated from China to the United States in the course of the outbreak of SARS.

But the Women’s World Cup, significantly again then, was a significantly smaller occasion in scope than the Olympics, with far fewer touring followers, athletes, sponsors and media members. And on the whole, stadiums that may accommodate soccer, the world’s hottest sport, are straightforward to search out. Venues that may host browsing, crusing, equestrian dressage and observe biking? Less so.

Olympic host cities block out rooms in numerous accommodations. They reserve high-profile venues, generate public security and transportation plans, and cope with a number of different logistical and authorized points years in advance, in anticipation of tens of 1000’s of holiday makers.

“Who could put on an event the size and scope of the Olympic Games even beginning today, five months out?” Pound mentioned. “Nobody, realistically.”

There can also be the query of whether or not it will even make sense amid a viral epidemic to have 1000’s of individuals from world wide congregate in one other metropolis after which return to their houses.

Yasuyuki Kato, professor of infectious illnesses on the International University of Health and Welfare in Narita, Japan, famous that the Games may act as “a hub to disseminate the virus to other countries.”

The Olympics have been canceled outright thrice — in 1916, 1940 and 1944 — in the course of the world wars.

The prospect of a cancellation now, when so many events have invested billions of {dollars} and years of labor — and have authorized contracts — appears almost unthinkable.

Broadcasters have carved out large programming blocks, and entrepreneurs have constructed campaigns meant to culminate in Tokyo. Athletes have skilled for years to look on that stage.

“I’ll tell you who definitely doesn’t want to cancel is NBC,” mentioned Jules Boykoff, a professor of politics and an professional on Olympic historical past at Pacific University in Oregon. “They have put billions into the rights to these Olympics. There will be serious disgruntlement from those who have power. They will insist that the Games go on.”

A spokesman for NBC mentioned, “The safety of our employees is always our top priority, but there is no impact on our preparations at this time.”

The unfold of viruses will be suppressed in hotter months, and Melissa Nolan, an professional on infectious illnesses on the University of South Carolina, mentioned “most predictions estimate we’ll see a major decline by July.”

But Pound mentioned he believed any resolution to cancel or modify the Games must be initiated by late May.

Asked about Pound’s feedback, Suga, Japan’s chief cupboard secretary, mentioned they had been “not the official view of the I.O.C.” And the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee, responding to questions from The New York Times, mentioned that it was “not considering canceling.”

In 2001, days after the Sept. 11 terrorist assaults, organizers of the Ryder Cup, a crew golf competitors between the United States and Europe that was traditionally staged in odd-numbered years, determined to postpone the occasion for 12 months after high golfers like Tiger Woods expressed concern about flying. To accommodate the change, the Presidents Cup, a crew golf competitors that had been staged in even-numbered years, was additionally pushed again a 12 months, to 2003.

An analogous however extra difficult kind of rejiggering can be required if the Olympics had been to be postponed by a number of months or a full 12 months.

Pushing the Games to the summer time of 2021 would put them in direct battle with world championship occasions in a number of sports activities, which might most certainly need to be moved as nicely.

Holding the Games just some months later would put them in direct competitors with a number of different skilled sports activities competitions that will not move to accommodate them. For instance, whereas N.B.A. basketball gamers can be found in July, they don’t seem to be obtainable in October.

In addition, NBC is busy with soccer within the fall, whereas its summer time programming is basically devoted to the Olympics. “Olympic parties don’t want to host Olympic Games in the middle of the N.F.L. football season for obvious financial reasons,” Burns mentioned.

With few good choices, organizers may very well be pressured to get inventive.

One technique to fulfill broadcasters may very well be to carry the occasions behind closed doorways, a nod to the truth that the majority followers watch the Games on tv. But it’s unclear whether or not public security considerations can be addressed if 1000’s of athletes, coaches and workers members from world wide had been nonetheless congregating in competitors venues.

Or may the Olympics go on in Tokyo as deliberate — with, maybe, travel from sure international locations barred, screening zones in each venue and public house, and loads of hand sanitizer and masks readily available?

At some level, although, such an occasion won’t really feel just like the Olympics, which is meant to be a peaceable celebration of individuals from greater than 200 international locations. Can the Olympics be the Olympics with out majestic opening and shutting ceremonies in packed stadiums, or if occasions are unfold out throughout a number of cities?

The questions might develop louder because the virus spreads additional.

“It’s unusual, it’s unprecedented, it’s a complex issue,” Burns mentioned, “and if something indeed happens, it will have a complex solution.”