The Final Four. The Masters. Major League Baseball’s Opening Day and the closure of pro basketball and hockey seasons (including a National Women’s Hockey League title game between the Minnesota Whitecaps and Boston Pride). Several high school and youth championships. All were canceled or postponed because of the coronavirus pandemic.
But the most significant, and symbolic, decision came last week with the postponement of the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Significant because of the scope: More than 11,000 athletes from more than 200 countries were to compete before millions of fans in the stands and billions in front of screens. Significant economically, because the postponement may shave 1.4% of Japan’s 2020 economic output and in turn hurt broadcasters, which account for about 75% of Olympic revenue, as well as sponsors planning extensive and expensive multinational marketing around the Games.
Symbolic because of what the Olympics stand for. The iconic, interlocking five rings, for instance, represent “the union of the five continents and the meeting of athletes from throughout the world,” according to the International Olympic Committee. If ever there were a time when the world needed a global, vital gathering it’s now. Unfortunately, of course, COVID-19 is forcing the opposite: closed borders amid a pandemic.
Symbolic also because a postponement is unprecedented: the Games went on even after the 1972 terrorist attack in Munich and the 1996 bombing in Atlanta, and proceeded despite Cold War-era boycotts of the 1980 Moscow Games and the 1984 L.A. Olympics. In fact, in the modern Olympic era, the Games have only had three wartime cancellations, in 1916, 1940 and 1944.
Indeed, the need to present a resounding rebuke to the virus crisis is one reason the IOC and the Japanese government were slow to postpone (no doubt the cost was a cause, too). This led to understandable criticism from some countries and athletes. Finally, Canada said it would not attend regardless, and the inevitable decision to delay until 2021 was announced.
While much of the initial focus on the calls to cancel was on Japan, the host country was actually less of an issue than many of the participating nations. While Japan was hit early by coronavirus, it responded early and efficiently, avoiding the kind of impact overwhelming Iran, Italy, Spain and portions of the United States. Japan’s plan for the pandemic was reflected in its meticulous preparation for the Olympics, too. Far from the shambolic sprint to complete venues in Sochi or Rio di Janeiro, Tokyo was well on track to finish the 40 sites for 33 sports in a fashion as orderly as the pristine city itself.
Tokyo 2020 was focused on the future, spokesperson Masa Takaya told an editorial writer in a 2018 reporting trip to the Japanese capital.
“We believe in the inspiration of athletes and sport,” Takaya said. Japan’s Olympiad, Takaya touted, will be more than efficient; it will comprise “the most innovative Games in history.”
That 2020 vision will have to wait until next year, when hopefully COVID-19 is contained and the world can shift its focus from sickness to “Citius-Altius-Fortius” — the Olympics’ official motto of “Faster-Higher-Stronger,” words the world hopes can describe a post-pandemic era, too.