The coronavirus pandemic upended numerous global traditions and societal norms in 2020. Among the most prominent of these was the first-ever postponement of the Olympics since the first modern Games were held in 1896. With COVID-19 still a clear and present danger, some are wondering if the Olympics, now expected to begin July 23, 2021, will be canceled or postponed a second time.
Historically, the Olympics have been all-out canceled five times—in 1916, 1940, and 1944, all due to the first and second World Wars—but 2020 marked the first time the International Olympic Committee chose to move the event to a later date.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga is already touting the Olympics as “a proof of human victory against the coronavirus.” It’s difficult to say how realistic that sentiment will be nearly seven months away from the event itself.
Even with vaccines currently being rolled out in many countries, the Olympics and Paralympics will involve 15,400 athletes from across the globe, along with tens of thousands of staff, officials, judges, broadcasters, and journalists. It could be a recipe for disaster, particularly with international travel allowing people to spread the virus in Japan and then bring cases back to their own countries.
More than 80% of people surveyed in Japan believe the Tokyo Olympics should be canceled or postponed. The country has already sunk at least $25 billion preparing for the Olympics—with all but $6.7 billion of that coming from public money—so this may be easier said than done.
China is also set to host the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing, so it would additionally be embarrassing for Japan to have to cancel or postpone a second time.
“I can’t be certain because the ongoing elephant in the room would be the surges in the virus,” Dick Pound, chairman of the Olympic Broadcasting Services, said when asked about whether the Olympics should take place. He added that athletes should be a high priority for a COVID-19 vaccine because they serve as “role models.”
Japanese minister Taro Kono, a noted member of Suga’s cabinet, also remains skeptical about whether the Olympics should occur. “I should say anything is possible,” Kono said. “It could go either way.”
In either case, if the show is to go on, it will look different than in previous years. According to Japanese media, the opening ceremony will feature only about 6,000 Olympic athletes—nearly half of the 11,000 athletes who would typically participate in the ceremony. Likewise, athletes will be instructed to arrive late and leave early. The plan is also to ensure that the Athlete’s Village stays sparsely populated. It also goes without saying that Tinder hookups will likely be strongly discouraged this time around.
With so many unknowns, there is still time to see how things play out before the Olympic torch relay begins on March 25. It is set to feature 10,000 runners crisscrossing the country from northern Japan to Tokyo over the course of four months. Last year, the 2020 Tokyo Olympic Games were canceled in late March, just weeks after COVID-19 was declared a pandemic.
“I think they’ll leave it until absolutely the last minute in case the situation improves dramatically, in case the vaccinations roll out faster than we all hope,” Keith Mills, deputy chair of the 2012 London Olympics organizing committee, told the BBC. “It’s a tough call, I wouldn’t like to be in their shoes.”