Can the Olympics be postponed? Yes, but it's complicated

With countries around the world battling to contain the coronavirus pandemic, there are growing calls for the International Olympic Committee to postpone or cancel the Summer Games, scheduled to begin on July 24 in Tokyo. Here are some of the issues surrounding a possible postponement.

As the COVID-19 pandemic spreads, Tokyo 2020 organizers have few options

As calls for Olympic postponement grow amid the growing COVID-19 pandemic, Tokyo 2020 organizers — one way or another — must chart a difficult course. (Charly Triballeau/AFP/Getty Images)

With countries around the world battling to contain the coronavirus pandemic, there are growing calls for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to either postpone or outright cancel this year's summer Olympics, which are scheduled to begin on July 24 in Tokyo.

Here are some of the issues surrounding a possible postponement:

Is it even possible for the Olympics to be postponed?

The answer is yes, but it's complicated. 

Japan's Olympic Minister Seiko Hashimoto has said that Tokyo's contract with the IOC states that the Games must be held during 2020. That would give organizers leeway to at least push the starting date back.

In the past, the IOC has been adamant that the Games would open July 24. The Paralympics are scheduled to start Aug. 25.

"The IOC remains fully committed to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, and with more than four months to go before the Games, there is no need for any drastic decisions at this stage; and any speculation at this moment would be counterproductive," the statement said.

Postponing the Games would have ramifications on TV rights, sponsor contractors, transportation and managing the workforce needed for an event like the Olympics.

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Dick Pound, a Canadian and the longest-serving member of the IOC, told The Associated Press that if the organization decides the Games cannot move forward in July, "you are probably looking at a cancellation."

When does a decision have to be made?

Pound said a final decision on whether the Games should or should not be cancelled can probably wait until late May. He also said the IOC isn't prepared to get "swept up in the immediacy of events going on as we speak."

Since that time, the IOC has set a deadline of mid-April to decide whether to postpone the Games, while remaining adamant that cancelling the Olympics is not an option.

What factors would influence the decision to change the date?

Obviously, the biggest factor is whether COVID-19 has been contained. If the virus is still ravaging countries, it's hard to see the Games happening. Even if the virus appears to be under control, there are issues like travel restrictions and closed borders. 

Another major concern is television rights. In 2011, NBC paid $4.38 billion US to secure the rights for the four Olympics, from 2014 to 2020. The network has sold more than $1 billion in ads for Tokyo. 

Health concerns could also result in athletes refusing to participate in the Games unless they are confident it's safe. 

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If not in July, when?

The Games would only be postponed once, so any decision by the IOC and Tokyo's organizing committee would probably push the starting date back months, not weeks. October is an option.

In Japan, September is the time of year with the greatest risk of typhoons. By October, the humidity is lower but the temperatures remain warm.

A fall Games could face resistance from North American broadcasters who already have sports like football, basketball and hockey on their schedule. NBC, for instance, carries the NFL's Sunday night game, usually the most-watched contest of the week. 

With training camps open, the NBA also might be reluctant to have its players participate in the Games.

Delaying the Games until 2021 would impact world championships in athletics and aquatics.

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Have Olympic Games ever been cancelled?

There is a precedent — but usually only in war.

The First World War forced the cancellation of the 1916 Summer Games. The 1940 Olympics were scheduled for Tokyo but were cancelled by the Second World War, as were the 1944 Games.

What would the associated costs be?

Officially, Japan is spending $12.6 billion US to organize the Olympics, but there are estimates that the cost is twice that — if not more.

It is also estimated that about 73 per cent of the IOC's $5.7-billion US income in a four-year Olympic cycle comes from broadcast rights.


Jim has written about sports in Canada for more than 40 years for The Canadian Press, CBC Sports, CFL.ca and Swimming Canada. He has covered eight Olympic Games and three Paralympics. He was there the night the Edmonton Oilers won their first Stanley Cup and has covered 12 Grey Cups.