Why cancelling the Olympics would be ‘catastrophic’ for sport
With six months to go until the Tokyo Olympics are scheduled to start, Telegraph Sport analyses the impact of cancelling the Games due to the effects of the coronavirus pandemic
The sportsmen and women who have worked for five years towards this goal clearly have most to lose. For some of them it will be their only chance to represent their countries on this stage, for others their last chance, and cancellation would likely spark a wave of retirements.
There are also commercial and sponsorship implications. Tim Crow, a sports marketing and sponsorship expert, observes it is those further down the food chain – rather than the superstars who win gold and become household names – who can suffer most.
“This can make or break people’s lives,” he said. “At every Games there are people whose lives change for good, but there are also, frankly, people for whom it’s the difference between breadline or not for them.”
The athletes are clearly finding the uncertainty extremely challenging to deal with. Paralympian Stef Reid tweeted her displeasure at the latest rumours – since denied – that the Games would be called off. “If it is true, make it official,” she wrote. “If it’s just a rumour, stop playing with emotions and mental health to sell stories.”
Fellow Paralympian Hannah Cockroft added: “This is our livelihoods being played with. We’re all aware there’s a chance the Games might not go ahead, but until an official decision is announced, please leave us to work and dream!”
As sailor Hannah Mills pointed out in a recent interview with the Telegraph, athletes have to think the Games are going ahead or they would never be able to commit 100 per cent to training
“It’s definitely mentally quite challenging,” Mills said. “Every now and then it creeps into your head ‘is the Games even going to happen?’ but you just can’t entertain that thought. You can’t let your brain go down that path.”
Andy Anson, chief executive of the British Olympic Association, told Telegraph Sport that athletes were their “No 1 priority”.
“We exist to give athletes the best chance of winning medals or achieving their dreams at Olympic Games,” he said. “So everything that we do is about the athletes. That’s what would be most hurtful [about cancellation], and much more hurtful for those guys who are coming to the ends of their careers and will not get another chance.”
The governing bodies
The stakes could hardly be bigger for the International Olympic Committee, both from a PR and commercial point of view. IOC president Thomas Bach was accused of being “tone deaf” last year when the IOC was perceived as being too slow to accept the inevitable and postpone the Games.
Nine months on, with the pandemic still raging, there is a risk of that happening again, but the IOC’s reticence is understandable. “The financial implications are catastrophic, not to put too fine a point on this,” says Crow. “The IOC is completely reliant on the Olympics. Obviously the biggest deal they’ve got is with [American broadcaster] NBC, which runs to 2032 (and is worth some $7.75bn). The fact that it is a long-term deal to a certain extent protects the IOC, but they would take a terrific hit. It wouldn’t be existential but it would be enormous.”
A major issue is that only around half the athletes have qualified – around 5,000 are still waiting to see if they can book their place. For Team GB, only around 10 per cent of a team, which is expected to number roughly 375, have been selected. This could mean using unusually historic performances, existing world rankings and waiting to discover whether the IOC will provide exemptions if athletes have simply been denied a fair opportunity to reach qualifying standards.
Anson stressed that both the IOC and Tokyo organisers were adamant the Games would go ahead and this was relayed to athletes on Friday. But he also admitted the BOA had “very little insurance” to cover its own losses if Games were cancelled.
“We’ve been very fortunate in that over the last 12 months, we’re 100 per cent commercially funded as an organisation,” he said. “We’ve been lucky that, in most cases, our partners have stayed with us and we’ve managed to defer all costs from last year into this year without losing hardly any. So we’ve managed our finances as well as we can.
“The biggest risk is if the Games are cancelled very late in the day. That would be a nightmare, not just for us, but for the IOC, and every other national Olympic committee, because at that point you have spent all the money, you’re going to spend, and you’ve got some commercial revenue which you might have to give back in the worst-case scenario.”
The trickle-down effect of the biggest sporting show on earth is significant. “The Olympics is, for the most part, a collection of quite small sports,” Crow said. “They may be big brands – athletics, for instance – but it’s a very small sport if you look at the numbers. These sports and federations are heavily reliant on the Olympics. If that money and that exposure is lost the effect is catastrophic.”
For some sports more than others. National governing bodies were reluctant to go on the record yesterday, not wishing to step out of line with the BOA, or unsettle their athletes by publicly speculating whether or not the Games might go ahead.
But, off the record, some clearly fear cancellation more than others. Football and rugby – sports big enough to generate commercial return without the Olympics – are more phlegmatic, but minor sports which rely on the huge exposure provided by the Olympics once every four years, to boost finances and participation levels, are naturally more nervous.
Hockey, for instance, saw a huge uptick in participation after GB’s women won gold in Rio. A spokesperson for England Hockey declined to comment but one senior figure within the Olympic movement said: “A sport like hockey or taekwondo… let’s be honest, between now and Paris it is an absolute desert.”
Financially speaking, it is the hosts who stand to lose the most. Tokyo 2020 was already shaping up to be the most expensive Summer Olympics ever staged, but costs are reported to have increased by over £2bn due to measures needed to prevent the spread of coronavirus.
The total figure now stands at around £11bn, which is why there are some serious internal politics at play. Some believe this week’s leaks from Tokyo are mischief-making from dissenting voices within the Government coalition. If they are, they would only be reflecting the national mood. A recent poll by national broadcaster NHK showed that a majority of the Japanese public now opposes holding the Games this summer, favouring a further delay or outright cancellation.
The stakes are enormous. Even a Games without fans, or with reduced fans, would be a devastating blow. As Crow says: “The organising committee are always heavily reliant, in terms of getting anywhere towards balancing the budget or making surplus money, on packed stadiums. With no fans, or reduced numbers of fans, that is a big number that comes out of the budget.”
Tokyo 2020 might be able to recoup some of that money through insurance, but much of it has already been paid down through construction costs.
After the annus horribilis the planet has endured, there are billions of people around the world looking forward to the greatest sporting show on earth this summer. Cancellation would be a blow to everyone’s spirits.
But there are some who stand to lose more than others. Anson was clear that British fans, at least, would not be out of pocket if the Games were to be cancelled. ”If people have bought tickets and can’t go, they’ll get refunded,” he said. “That has to happen. But they are still taking bookings for people who are hoping and expecting the Games will go ahead.”
Anson said if foreign fans were not allowed in, organisers would do everything to ensure local Japanese fans fill the venues. “The Japanese government don’t want to do this behind closed doors, even if it’s only Japanese spectators. But they don’t need to make those decisions yet. They can leave them till probably late April time.”
Crow said the consequences would be devastating for some operators: “There’s a huge industry around the Olympics and a lot of it is very high-priced packages. For sure there will be operators going out of business.”