There a lot of perceived existential threats to the Olympic Games. Like costs, or performance enhancing drugs, security concerns, or globalism, or any of the number of shifting values that might make the world’s most visible sporting festival either unsustainable or simply obsolete.
You can add to that a more substantial threat to both the Olympics and the world outside of the sporting arena. That threat is the Corona Virus, which suddenly seems far more threatening to the Games than Russian doping or exploding stadium costs. That is the message coming from the International Olympic Committee, where a senior official admitted that if the Corona Virus proved too dangerous, they may cancel this Summer’s Olympic Games in Tokyo. That would be the first Olympics cancelled for reasons other than World War and throw billions and billions of dollars down the drain. Not to mention the number of athletes who’s lives would be forever incomplete and the potential damage to the future of the Olympic movement, which I know may sound insignificant compared to a global pandemic.
For the time being, we’re far from pulling the plug, and athletes have been encouraged to continue training as normal. But already a whole lot of sporting events across the globe are on hold – or at least severely altered. For example, the Chinese professional soccer league can’t start its season – and very likely won’t. Teams in South Korea and Vietnam and all across Asia are either cancelling games, checking fans, or restricting travel to and from other countries. The Tokyo Marathon will only allow the small group of elite runners to compete on March 1, not the 38,000 or so amateurs that planned to run. And now over in Italy, where Corona has become a growing concern, the soccer club Inter Milan will play an elimination match in an empty stadium, which usually only happens to punish a team for some kind of unruly fan violence. It’s kind of like War of the Worlds – it’s the bacteria that’s gets you in the end.
Clearly, there’s impossible risk that would come from hosting an Olympic Games during a pandemic, particularly one held near ground central. Between the 10,000 competitors and half a million spectators who travel to the Games, it’s basically the world’s greatest petri dish, second only to cruise ships, of course. Which means that if there isn’t some reasonable Corona end game within the next couple of months, when networks have to start building studios and final decisions have to be made, it’s probably just not going to happen. Which means that Japan will be left with a bunch of unused stadiums and hotels for a party that never happened. It’s like being stood up at the altar, if your wedding cost $12 billion.
It’s not particularly worthwhile discussing whether or not the Games should be cancelled. That’s like arguing whether next month should be March. People with actual expertise in public health will have to make best calculations, and we’ll have to hope that leaders and politicians will heed their advice. Unfortunately, the fact that that the leader of the free world recently said Corona should wrap up when shorts weather arrives, like it’s some seasonal allergy, does give pause.
But what is worth contemplating is how a cancellation might impact the future of the Olympic Games themselves, one that was fairly uncertain before anyone knew Corona was anything besides a beer you drink with lime on a beach. As much as no one would fault the IOC for waiving the white flag this summer, it might also serve as litmus, or perhaps a reminder that we won’t miss it if it’s gone. It’s kind of like a long-distance relationship. It either makes the heart grow fonder, or in some cases to wander. We may find that to be the case here with global sports fans, particularly American viewers who every day have more media choices that don’t involve swimming and track and field. One missed Olympic cycle, and one chance for fans and networks and the corporations that support them might find someplace else to spend and earn their money, one that comes with fewer headaches.
Beyond that, potential host nations can add global pandemic as yet another risk to hosting the Games, in addition to security issues, crippling deficits, and an angry public that never wanted the Olympics in their town in the first place. Which makes putting in a bid even riskier than before. Good thing France and US are locked in for the next eight years, although contracts are made to be broken.
For now, the IOC probably shouldn’t worry too much about 2024 or 2028, or certainly 2032. They’ve got their hands full enough with 2020.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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