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Could the Olympics really be cancelled because of coronavirus?

The IOC is stuck in a bad situation with no good answer.

A man takes a photo of person posing behind the Olympic... Photo by Stanislav Kogiku/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images

The 2020 Summer Olympics have been postponed until 2021, the International Olympic Committee announced on Monday, March 23.


The ongoing Covid-19 (coronavirus) outbreak could have an impact on the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo, though it’s unclear how drastic it will be.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) is taking a measured approach to Covid-19, saying they won’t make a decision on the games until May. There are a variety of reasons why it’s prudent for the IOC to wait, but the situation is still profoundly difficult for athletes and fans alike who are deep in preparations to travel to Tokyo for the games, which are scheduled to begin July 24. The last time the Olympics were canceled was in 1944, when the summer games weren’t held due to World War II.

The threat of coronavirus has already affected other sporting events in Japan. The J-League, the country’s top soccer league, are on a three-week delay to get a better grasp on outbreak before resuming games. The same is true of Olympic qualifier events, with soccer and boxing being cancelled thus far. There are currently 210 diagnosed cases of Covid-19 in Japan, and while the country hasn’t seen a drastic increase in cases like South Korea, Italy or Iran, there are still major concerns about how the country will respond to the virus — concerns that will only heighten amid a major influx of tourism tied to the Olympics.

The IOC is in a tough spot. Moving the games might seem feasible, but with little time to prepare it’s unlikely that any country could accommodate hosting while weighing their own concerns about coronavirus. Canceling the games altogether might make the most sense from a public health standpoint, but it could be premature considering the lack of new cases in Japan paired with the possibility of higher temperatures stemming the tide of infections — but that also assumes a lot about Covid-19 which is still unknown.

Aside from the fact it would be a huge disappointment for athletes who have been training for years, canceling the games could quickly turn into a logistical nightmare. Broadcasting partners who spent billions on rights to show the games would have to reverse course and find alternate programming while potentially seeking reparations from the IOC. An article in the New York Times points out the possibility of keeping the games in Tokyo as planned and holding events in empty stadiums. Though it would prevent thousands of spectators from communing in small areas where the virus could easily spread, the lost tourism revenue would leave Japan unable to recoup much of their investment.

So much remains unknown about coronavirus, both as a virus and how it will impact the world moving forward. Already wreaking havoc on global financial markets, new threats of supply chain issues could drastically alter the availability of products and services. In the United States, the CDC has warned the potential impact on daily life could be immense with the possibility of altered school schedules and widespread remote work should the pandemic worsen.