Could the Olympics Be Cancelled Due to Coronavirus?

Eventing Nation’s Tilly Berendt takes a look at the likelihood of the 2020 Olympics being cancelled due to the coronavirus. 

Andrew Hoy (AUS) riding Bloom Des Hauts Crets at the Ready Steady Tokyo Test Event. Photo by FEI/Yusuke Nakanishi.

Partnered with any epidemic is a heaping helping of wide-spread speculation — oftentimes with little grounding in science and cold, hard facts. But as current headline-hogger coronavirus gains in traction, murmurings about the fate of this summer’s Olympic Games — due to begin in Tokyo on the 24th of July — have been addressed by a senior member of the International Olympic Committee, or IOC.

Though the coronavirus outbreak has largely been localized in China, cases have been reported in every continent barring Antarctica. The number of cases has now hit 80,000, with a death toll of over 2,700 — though it’s important to note that this mortality rate is considerably lower than that of influenza, which is estimated to cause up to 61,000 deaths per year. Nor do these numbers currently compare to those of the SARS coronavirus epidemic of 2003, which yielded considerably fewer cases but a significantly higher mortality rate of 9.6%, compared to the approximately 2% mortality rate estimated by the World Health Organization at this point in the coronavirus trajectory.

Nonetheless, it’s crucial to take fast-spreading illness seriously, and exceptional efforts to contain the virus at its source have certainly contributed to its diminished spread. Hotels, resorts, and cruise ships are among the global tourist attractions to go into quarantine after confirmed cases, and a number of major calendar events have been put on hold or cancelled to mitigate the movement of large numbers of people from place to place — including several in and around Tokyo. This includes J.League football, the country’s largest professional football series, which has been put on hold until the 15th of March, while the Tokyo Marathon, due to run on Sunday, will now feature just a select roster of elite runners after 38,000 confirmed entrants were told they wouldn’t be able to participate. This morning, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan has asked all of the country’s schools to close for a month to help contain the spread of the virus.

Three new cases of the virus were confirmed in Chiba, north of Tokyo, which is due to host the Taekwondo, surfing, wrestling, and fencing events at the Games, as well as four of the Paralympic disciplines. All three of these cases emerged among members of the same gym in Chiba. The host country for the forthcoming Games has also seen two deaths from the coronavirus outbreak. This brings Japan’s case total to 172 on land, plus a further 700 people who have been quarantined on the cruise ship Diamond Princess, moored in Yokohama and on lockdown since the 3rd of February.

Michael Jung (GER) riding Fischerwild Wave at the Ready Steady Tokyo Test Event. Photo by FEI/Yusuke Nakanishi.

All this has already had an impact on Olympic preparations. Training for the approximately 80,000 volunteers due to help at the Games was set to begin on the 22nd of February, but this has now been pushed back by at least two months. But if the outbreak — which is at risk of becoming a pandemic- – hasn’t eased by then? It could be curtains for this year’s Olympics.

Former Canadian swimming champion Dick Pound has been on the IOC since the late 1970s, and is thus the longest-serving member of the current committee. In an interview with the Associated Press, he explained the logistical difficulties of rearranging an event of this scale.

“A lot of things have to start happening [over the next few months],” he said, explaining that there’s just a two- to three-month window in which the decision over whether to run can be made. “You’ve got to start ramping up your security, your food, the Olympic Village, the hotels. The media folks will be in there building their studios.”

But if the virus shows no signs of slowing its progress, there’s no Plan B for alternative arrangements.

“You just don’t postpone something on the size and scale of the Olympics,” he said. “There’s so many moving parts, so many countries and different seasons, and competitive seasons, and television seasons. You can’t just say, ‘We’ll do it in October.'”

Tokyo Bay’s Sea Forest, where eventing cross country is set to take place. Photo via

In the meantime, preparations are continuing as usual, and Pound encouraged athletes to continue their own preparations, too. As the Games creep ever closer, the IOC will be working in close conjunction with the World Health Organization (WHO) to make a decision over the viability – and safety – of running this high-cost, high-risk competition.

“As far as we all know, you’re going to be in Tokyo. All indications are at this stage that it will be business as usual. So keep focused on your sport and be sure that the IOC is not going to send you into a pandemic situation.”

Pound also dismissed the idea of delayed the Games until the summer of 2021, pointing out that the enormity of the infrastructure required – and the $12.6 billion dollar cost officially amassed thus far – would make it an impossible task.

“You have to ask if you can hold the bubble together for an extra year,” he said. “Then, of course, you have to fit all of this into the entire international sports schedule.”

The modern Olympics have only ever been cancelled as a result of war, though several Games have seen mass boycotts on political grounds. In several cases, this has resulted in sport-specific fringe championships springing up around the world to accommodate athletes who were, well, all dressed up with nowhere to go. In 1980, for example, much of the world refused to attend the Moscow Olympics, and the creme-de-la-creme of the international eventing fraternity would, instead, head to France’s Fontainebleau for the alternative Olympics. In 1986, too, an alternative World Championship was set at Poland’s Bialy Bor, offering a chance to compete for those riders who didn’t want to travel their horses to Australia for the official championships. (Some riders did both, like Ginny Elliott, who became a double-World Champion that year when she swept both leaderboards.) But Pound worries that this approach takes away the essence of the Olympic ethos – its inclusivity.

“[It wouldn’t] constitute an Olympic Games. You’d end up with a series of world championships,” he said, pointing out that finding appropriate venues and infrastructure for that amount of sports within a 17-day period, and with only a few months of preparation time, would be extraordinarily difficult.

London, which successfully hosted the 2012 Games, has been mentioned as a possible candidate for a relocated Olympics – but this scenario looks unlikely.

Offers of help from further afield have only added extra tension to a tricky situation. Shaun Bailey, the Conservative party candidate for the 2020 London mayoral election, has suggested that the city — which successfully hosted the 2012 Games — take over this year’s iteration, prompting Tokyo governor Yuriko Koike to accuse him of using the virus for political gain.

Though much remains uncertain about the summer of sport, the next two weeks are a crucial window in which to curb the progress of the coronavirus in Japan, and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called for all major sporting events in that timeframe to be cancelled or postponed to aid in its containment.

So what do you do, if you’re at the helm of the world’s biggest sporting celebration as an epidemic unfurls around it? You think like a horse person: that is, you prepare for the worst and you hope, ineffably for the best. That’s exactly what Olympics Minister Seiko Hashimoto is doing.

“We believe it is necessary to prepare for the worst-case scenario to improve our operations to achieve success,” he told the International Sports Press Association, or AIPS, intimating that plans are in place “to keep the Tokyo Olympics safe.”

But, he continues, “it is impossible to exclude the cancellation of the event at the moment. We will consider every detail, every data and ask ourselves if we are in control, and what risks are still present. As of now, we can say that the Olympics will take place and in Tokyo and that we are going ahead in the preparation, as athletes must do. Stopping an Olympiad is a huge decision that will certainly not be taken only by us.”

Should the situation be regarded as a done deal? Not necessarily. After all, the Rio Olympics carried on despite an outbreak of Zika virus, which hit tens of thousands of cases in the city, the epicenter of the epidemic. Despite calls for the Games to be moved, postponed, or cancelled altogether, the decision was made to carry on with increased protective measures against mosquitoes, the unwelcome carriers of the virus.

The IOC Executive Board will meet from the 3rd to the 5th of March in Lausanne, after which there may be an update on the — somewhat bumpy — trail to Tokyo. We’ll keep you up-to-date with all the developments as they’re released.