As society began to come to terms with the rapid spread of COVID-19 around the world, the IOC and its counterparts in Japan kept a close watch on the developing pandemic. When the announcement was made that the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 were to be postponed by a year, it was the result of an informed, albeit difficult, decision arrived at with the full consensus of all parties involved.
Christophe Dubi, the IOC’s Olympic Games Executive Director, explains: “We were fortunate to be working with a very good Organising Committee and were able to navigate through complicated discussions because everyone was speaking with one voice: the IOC, the Organising Committee, the City of Tokyo and the government of Japan. This alignment between all parties really helped us to make the right decision at the same time.”
Now that it has been formalised and the new dates chosen, the practicalities of moving the event can begin in earnest, in partnership with everyone involved. Outlining what needs to be done, Pierre Ducrey, Olympic Games Operations Director, explains: “It’s a very complex jigsaw puzzle of negotiations with private and public parties and a number of stakeholders in the Olympic Movement, to ensure that we have everything that we need.”
First, there are the athletes. Concerns about their health and well-being were a major motivating factor for the postponement decision. Some 11,000 athletes from 206 National Olympic Committees (NOCs) are hoping to compete at the Olympic Games. They have known for several years where and when the Games were due to take place and have trained, hoping to peak this summer. Although 57 per cent had already qualified for the Games and have now received assurances that their qualifications will be valid next year, 43 per cent have yet to do so. But all will now have to re-plan their training programmes for the next year. This is currently further complicated by containment measures in place in many countries, which have made training, particularly for team sports, hugely challenging.
Then there is the sports calendar. The sporting landscape is very crowded, with many events serving as training and qualification opportunities for the Olympic Games. The International Federations, and indeed the professional leagues, were already facing difficult choices as a result of the health crisis. The decision to postpone the Games means that sports federations are now able to adjust their own calendars too, but will need to fit in with the new dates for the Games. The sports world has shown solidarity, with some federations already deciding to shift their own world championships to 2022. This nonetheless represents a logistical and financial challenge for them, as well as further uncertainty for the athletes, who were almost certainly training for these events too.
The Olympic schedule
And what of the event itself? There are 33 sports on the programme for the Olympic Games, each involving an International Federation. Within these sports, there are 339 separate events taking place in 42 competition venues. Making sure the venues are still available will be a first priority for the IOC and its partners. Every effort will be made to ensure that the schedule of sporting events can be replicated, in the same venues if possible.
Home-from-home: the Olympic Village
Securing the Olympic Village will be another priority for the organisers. Typically, the beating heart of any Olympic Games, the Village is home to the athletes and their entourage during the full period of the Games. In addition to 18,000 beds, it also houses medical facilities and an 18,500m2, two-storey dining hall, along with recreational amenities and a gym. Built on the waterfront in Tokyo, this 5,000-apartment complex was planned to fulfil a long-term housing need for the city after the Games.
Partners & suppliers
Meanwhile, the IOC’s 14 Worldwide “TOP” Partners alongside the host country’s 67 domestic partners were all gearing up to provide vital goods and services to ensure the smooth running of the Games. Technology, vehicles, financial and logistical services, food and beverage suppliers – these partners have planned their operations and supply chains well in advance and were preparing to deliver this summer.
Broadcast & media partners
One of the features that makes the Olympic Games so special is that they are beamed around the world in real-time, and one half of the world’s population tunes in to watch the competitions on digital or linear platforms. This is made possible thanks to the work of Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS) and the Rights-Holding Broadcasters (RHBs). For Tokyo 2020, there are currently 26 RHBs, alongside the Olympic Channel. By Games time, there may be more than 300 sub-licensees. The broadcasters plan their schedules years in advance, often around the global sporting and entertainment calendars. They will need to re-visit their schedules, along with those of their advertisers. Furthermore, many of them “grow” their workforce at Games time (camera operators, sound technicians, signal coordinators, etc.) using contract staff and equipment. While there is every chance these staff will still be available on the new dates, it may have knock-on effects on other operations and suppliers.
To house the broadcast operations and staff, alongside members of the traditional print media – upwards of 25,000 accredited persons – Tokyo 2020 had planned to use the Tokyo Big Site. Japan’s largest convention and exhibition centre, spanning 265,700m2, it was meant to serve as the International Broadcast Centre (IBC)/Main Press Centre (MPC). This had the important advantage of avoiding the organisers having to build a dedicated facility, thereby representing savings in terms of cost and infrastructure.
Workforce & volunteers
In addition to accredited media, any Olympic Games cannot take place without the dedication and enthusiasm of the workforce and volunteers. Tokyo 2020 had planned a workforce of 150,000 staff, volunteers and contractors, most of whom had already been recruited. This close to the Games, many had begun or were ready to begin work. Although the Organising Committee is going to make every effort to retain the volunteers who had already signed up, it may nonetheless find itself having to recruit a new volunteer force, while some may face disappointment at not being able to rearrange their own schedules to attend.
Finally, there are the spectators, a key part of any Olympic Games. Millions of people have already bought tickets, some for what was promising to be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Others had already made travel arrangements and planned excursions and additional activities to coincide with the experience. For instance, some 4.48 million tickets have already been sold in Japan, in addition to tickets sold around the world by Authorised Ticket Re-sellers (ATRs). Although the Organising Committee plans to make every effort to ensure that tickets already sold remain valid in 2021, some spectators who were planning the trip may no longer be able to go. The logistics behind ticket reimbursements and a re-sale will offer an added layer of challenge to the operation.
Complex, but possible
The challenge for all parties now will be to realign all these one year from now. Commenting on the complexity of the operation, Dubi explained: “Clearly there is no way you can do something like this unless all stakeholders are on board. The Olympic Movement has walked in unison through this crisis, and the support we got was remarkable. It was understood by everybody that this was the best thing to do in this context. I think it shows that the unity of the Olympic Movement is very strong.” He continued: “when we combine the capabilities and the commitments at the highest level, including of the IOC and the entire Olympic family, we can be confident. A postponement is never ideal, but at least we have all the conditions in place to deliver the best event possible, so we have a lot of confidence that we are going to deliver great Games next year.”