The last time the Olympic Games were held in Tokyo in 1964, Yoshinori Sakai was the torchbearer. Born in Hiroshima, the day the bomb was dropped, his presence was a symbol of hope. Now a city and country that is reeling from a pandemic is clinging onto that hope, that the return of the biggest sporting carnival does not fan the flames of a public health catastrophe.
A ticking time bomb
After positive tests for United States gymnastics alternate Kara Eaker and Czech Republic team member Ondřej Perušič were announced on Monday, the total number of cases has climbed to 71, while six British athletes and two staff members are isolating in their rooms at the training camp in Yokohoma, having been identified as close contacts of a member of the public who tested positive for COVID-19 on their flight which arrived from London on Friday.
With seven new Olympic contractors added on Tuesday, the total number of infected contractors associated with the Games has gone up to 40. Games volunteers and contractors are directly involved in assisting its operations before, during and after the event. They play an active role in helping with the day-to-day work while also assisting the athletes in managing logistics.
And most concerning of all has been the bio-bubble breakdown inside the Olympic Village. So far two athletes have tested positive, while further tests on the other athletes and support staff will give a clearer picture of the task at hand to somewhat stabilise the situation before Friday.
Why can’t Japan pull the plug?
The contractual obligations between the IOC and host city Tokyo are pretty straightforward: there’s one article regarding cancellation and it only gives the option for the IOC to cancel, and not the host city, the reason being that the Olympic Games are the “exclusive property” of the IOC and as the “owner”, it is only the IOC that can terminate the contract.
One reason that does justify a cancellation – aside from events like war or civil disorder – is that if “the IOC has reasonable grounds to believe, in its sole discretion, that the safety of participants in the Games would be seriously threatened or jeopardised for any reason whatsoever“. Arguably, the pandemic could be seen as such a threat.
So, can Japan go against the IOC and pull out itself?
The contract was a typical one and the city knew what it signed up to. What it didn’t know was that a global pandemic would completely change the scene. “Under the various clauses within a host city agreement, if Japan was to unilaterally cancel the contract, then, by and large, the risks and losses would fall with the local organising committee,” Prof Jack Anderson at the University of Melbourne told BBC.
The only viable option is Japan pulling the plug jointly with the IOC. If that happens, that’s where insurance comes into play. The IOC has insurance, the organising committee has insurance, and the various broadcasters and sponsors will also have insurance, though it would hardly cover all the indirect costs racked up by different investments across the country in anticipation of the spectacle and the crowd it was meant to fetch.
What has been said so far?
The head of the Tokyo Olympics organising committee on Tuesday did not rule out the possibility of a last-minute cancellation of the showpiece event which kicks start this Friday. Asked during a press conference if the Games might still be cancelled amid rising COVID-19 cases, Toshiro Muto said he would keep an eye on infection numbers and hold discussions with organisers if necessary.
“We have agreed that based on the coronavirus situation, we will convene five-party talks again. At this point, the coronavirus cases may rise or fall, so we will think about what we should do when the situation arises.”
Japan has been warned by many experts that the COVID infection rates could double by the end of the Games, and with 71 cases reported already before the start of the events, it should be a clear enough indication to the IOC and the organising committee that a calamity is waiting just around the corner.