It was a scene that could have been directed by Cecil B DeMille. On the stillest of Thursday mornings in Olympia, on the site of the ancient Games in Greece, a woman in traditional dress asked the gods for sacred silence. Then she bowed down and used the sun’s rays to light the Olympic flame for the Tokyo 2020 Games.
The ceremony at the Temple of Hera, which is conducted before every Olympics, marks the start of the torch relay. But whether the flame will reach its final destination, Tokyo’s National Stadium, on 24 July is increasingly in doubt.
For now the message from the International Olympic Committee is clear: the show will go on. As the IOC’s president, Thomas Bach, puts it: “We remain absolutely in line with our Japanese hosts in our commitment to delivering a safe Olympic Games in July this year. There is no plan B.”
But Bach is increasingly swimming against a raging tide. Sport after sport is in lockdown. Governments are restricting mass gatherings. And never in our lifetime have we had a virus quite like Covid-19.
Rifts about whether to stage the Games are also opening up in Japan, where Shigeru Ishiba, a senior MP tipped as the successor to Shinzo Abe as prime minister, has warned the government to prepare for a worst-case scenario. Haruyuki Takahashi, a member of the organising committee’s executive board, suggested a postponement of one or two years would be the “most feasible” way of ensuring the Games’ survival, adding that a decision would have to be made by the end of April.
To many it seems preposterous that the Games will take place in the current climate. However, Michael Payne, a former senior marketing executive at the IOC, insists that with the Games 19 weeks away there is no need to make a quick decision. “It’s way too early to assume that the Games are going to be cancelled because of the panic today,” he says. “The next few weeks are going to be difficult. And I am not downplaying the seriousness of the virus. But in two months’ time the situation may look very different, especially given Japan and China appear to be over the worst of it.”
Payne, who worked for nearly two decades inside the Olympic movement and helped negotiate the IOC’s £1bn deal with the Chinese firm Alibaba, points out there are often problems before a Games that can suddenly resolve themselves.
“In November 2017, when Kim Jong-un and President Trump were going at it, many people questioned whether the IOC should be sending athletes to what looked like the most dangerous spot on the planet,” he says. “But three months later the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics went ahead without any problems.
“In 2016 there were concerns with the Zika virus and problems with the organising committee before Rio. While three years before the Athens Olympics there were discussions about what it would take to leave because the Greek government had its head in the sand.
“The IOC is used to dealing with such big decisions and has a team of very highly qualified experts who will weigh up the risks, speak to the medical experts, and make the right choice.”
However, another senior figure, who helped run the London 2012 Olympics, believes it will be hard for the Games to go ahead. “The IOC and the Japanese government have a very difficult decision,” says the source, speaking on condition of anonymity. “For instance, how is the Japanese health care system going to cope with perhaps a million fans turning up, some of whom may be from countries where the virus is at its peak? Or what happens if an athlete gets it during the Games? Remember most rooms in the Olympic Village rooms have between two and four athletes in them so it could easily spread.”
In London there were contingency plans for all sorts of potential incidents – including a chemical attack, a fake bomb and a high-profile death of a royal family member that would have meant switching coverage to other TV channels. However, sources caution that a pandemic presents far trickier challenges to overcome.
“If you look at the groups of people you need for a Games to function, it includes athletes, officials, volunteers, fans and the media,” says one informed voice. “And with all these groups – who will be coming from all over the world – the virus is nondiscriminatory. So then the contingency planning scales back to who are the central people for the Olympics to go ahead and the first big decision the IOC has to make is, can the Games take place without any of these groups? I think it is unlikely.”
Some athletes are starting to worry about how they are going to qualify for the Games given so many tournaments have been cancelled, postponed or moved to new locations. The eerie sight of 300 elite runners and wheelchair athletes taking part in this month’s Tokyo marathon must also have given even the most optimistic Japanese officials pause for thought. Plans for Olympic torches journey around Greece have been scrapped, and restrictions on spectators will almost certainly apply when the flame begins its journey around Japan’s 47 prefectures six days later, starting in Fukushima.
Nick Varley, who has worked on four successful bids, including Tokyo’s, believes the Games will go ahead. However, he predicts that if there is a postponement it will be for a year rather than a couple of months. “It is unfair to ask athletes to try to peak in July and then tell them to stand down and wait until October,” he says.
“Remember that most of them are not stars but amateurs who are carving out time from their other careers. The other thing to bear in mind is that the US network NBC won’t want the Olympics to be held at the same time as the start of the NFL or NBA seasons. So while I still expect the Games to go ahead, I think any delay would be for 12 months.”
Another source warns that rescheduling an Olympics will not necessarily be straightforward. “The Games are effectively block-booked seven years in advance. In London we started to book the hotel rooms very soon after winning the bid. It is quite difficult to postpone the Games.
“The other thing is not to forget about the Paralympics. You have some more vulnerable people competing and it is, in theory, the fourth-biggest world sporting event.”
On Saturday, it was left to Japan’s Olympics minister, Seiko Hashimoto, to repeat the official line – that the event, which has cost at least $12bn in preparations and attracted more than $3bn in domestic sponsorships, would not be delayed.
Sources in the IOC insist that as long as there is a chance of holding the Games, they should try to stage them for the sake of the athletes. It probably will not be until late May that a decision is made.
Some of Tokyo’s residents, though, are increasingly more concerned about the virus’s spread than the Games. “If you think about the safety of athletes, I don’t think we should have the Olympics,” Yoshio Yoshimoto, a 70-year-old contract worker, said. “Who would take responsibility if you force it and the coronavirus outbreak turns worse?”