Grappling With Coronavirus, Tokyo Olympic Leaders Have No Good Options

In his two decades as a consultant to organizations vying to host the Olympic Games, Terrence Burns helped write and review official bids and plans from dozens of potential candidate cities.

In all those bids, he said, discussions of potential disruptions to the event were fairly narrow in scope: mostly natural disasters, like earthquakes or fires, and, more recently, terrorist attacks.

“I’ve never seen an Olympic organizing committee asked, ‘Are you prepared for a global pandemic?’” Burns said this week.

Now, with just under five months to go before the scheduled opening of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo on July 24, organizers in Japan and at the International Olympic Committee headquarters in Switzerland are grappling with the coronavirus outbreak, which is threatening to derail the world’s largest sporting event.

In preparing for the Olympics, Japan’s public health planning until now had focused on the prevention of measles and rubella, sexually transmitted diseases and food poisoning. A new disease, like the coronavirus, was not central to their calculations.

Still, as the virus has begun to spread through the country, officials in Japan have played down suggestions that plans for the Games could be altered or even canceled. At a news briefing on Wednesday, the chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, said that preparations for the Games were proceeding “as planned,” adding that the Olympic torch would begin its journey to Japan in March according to schedule.

The I.O.C. has also declined to entertain the possibility that the Games might not take place exactly as planned.

But sporting events in Japan and elsewhere are already being canceled, as governments try to discourage large gatherings in major cities.

Many who have procured tickets and made travel plans are now wondering whether they will have to scrap them.

“We’ve had our first guests calling to ask questions about canceling,” Anbritt Stengele, the president of Sports Traveler, a travel agency specializing in packages to international sporting events, said this week. “Everyone in the industry is monitoring it and concerned.”

  • Updated Feb. 26, 2020

    • What is a Coronavirus?
      It is a novel virus named for the crown-like spikes that protrude from its surface. The coronavirus can infect both animals and people, and can cause a range of respiratory illnesses from the common cold to more dangerous conditions like Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome, or SARS.
    • How do I keep myself and others safe?
      Washing your hands frequently is the most important thing you can do, along with staying at home when you’re sick.
    • What if I’m traveling?
      The C.D.C. has warned older and at-risk travelers to avoid Japan, Italy and Iran. The agency also has advised against all non-essential travel to South Korea and China.
    • Where has the virus spread?
      The virus, which originated in Wuhan, China, has sickened more than 80,000 people in at least 33 countries, including Italy, Iran and South Korea.
    • How contagious is the virus?
      According to preliminary research, it seems moderately infectious, similar to SARS, and is probably transmitted through sneezes, coughs and contaminated surfaces. Scientists have estimated that each infected person could spread it to somewhere between 1.5 and 3.5 people without effective containment measures.
    • Who is working to contain the virus?
      The World Health Organization officials have been working with officials in China, where growth has slowed. But this week, as confirmed cases spiked on two continents, experts warned that the world is not ready for a major outbreak.

People across the Olympic world have begun to ponder, then, what might happen if the coronavirus has not been brought under control before the summer.

“I’m sure somewhere within the walls of the I.O.C. headquarters there’s a big board with various scenarios on it where people are thinking about, ‘OK, what do we do in a worst-case situation?” said Dick Pound, a longtime I.O.C. member.

There are options, of course, according to people like Burns who have worked with the Olympics for decades. None are very appealing.

But the Women’s World Cup, particularly back then, was a considerably smaller event in scope than the Olympics, with far fewer traveling fans, athletes, sponsors and media members. And in general, stadiums that can accommodate soccer, the world’s most popular sport, are easy to find. Venues that can host surfing, sailing, equestrian dressage and track cycling? Less so.

Olympic host cities block out rooms in countless hotels. They reserve high-profile venues, generate public safety and transportation plans, and deal with a host of other logistical and legal issues years in advance, in anticipation of tens of thousands of visitors.

“Who could put on an event the size and scope of the Olympic Games even beginning today, five months out?” Pound said. “Nobody, realistically.”

There is also the question of whether it would even make sense amid a viral epidemic to have thousands of people from around the world congregate in another city and then return to their homes.

Yasuyuki Kato, professor of infectious diseases at the International University of Health and Welfare in Narita, Japan, noted that the Games could act as “a hub to disseminate the virus to other countries.”

The Olympics have been canceled outright three times — in 1916, 1940 and 1944 — during the world wars.

The prospect of a cancellation now, when so many parties have invested billions of dollars and years of labor — and have legal contracts — seems almost unthinkable.

Broadcasters have carved out huge programming blocks, and marketers have built campaigns meant to culminate in Tokyo. Athletes have trained for years to appear on that stage.

“I’ll tell you who definitely doesn’t want to cancel is NBC,” said Jules Boykoff, a professor of politics and an expert on Olympic history at Pacific University in Oregon. “They have put billions into the rights to these Olympics. There will be serious disgruntlement from those who have power. They will insist that the Games go on.”

A spokesman for NBC said, “The safety of our employees is always our top priority, but there is no impact on our preparations at this time.”

The spread of viruses can be suppressed in warmer months, and Melissa Nolan, an expert on infectious diseases at the University of South Carolina, said “most predictions estimate we’ll see a major decline by July.”

But Pound said he believed any decision to cancel or modify the Games would have to be initiated by late May.

Asked about Pound’s comments, Suga, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, said they were “not the official view of the I.O.C.” And the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee, responding to questions from The New York Times, said that it was “not considering canceling.”

In 2001, days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, organizers of the Ryder Cup, a team golf competition between the United States and Europe that was historically staged in odd-numbered years, decided to postpone the event for 12 months after top golfers like Tiger Woods expressed concern about flying. To accommodate the change, the Presidents Cup, a team golf competition that had been staged in even-numbered years, was also pushed back a year, to 2003.

A similar but more complicated sort of rejiggering would be required if the Olympics were to be postponed by a few months or a full year.

Pushing the Games to the summer of 2021 would put them in direct conflict with world championship events in several sports, which would most likely have to be moved as well.

Holding the Games just a few months later would put them in direct competition with a host of other professional sports competitions that would not move to accommodate them. For example, while N.B.A. basketball players are available in July, they are not available in October.

In addition, NBC is busy with football in the fall, while its summer programming is largely dedicated to the Olympics. “Olympic parties don’t want to host Olympic Games in the middle of the N.F.L. football season for obvious financial reasons,” Burns said.

With few good options, organizers could be forced to get creative.

One way to satisfy broadcasters could be to hold the events behind closed doors, a nod to the reality that most fans watch the Games on television. But it’s unclear whether public safety concerns would be addressed if thousands of athletes, coaches and staff members from around the world were still congregating in competition venues.

Or could the Olympics go on in Tokyo as planned — with, perhaps, travel from certain countries barred, screening zones in every venue and public space, and plenty of hand sanitizer and masks on hand?

At some point, though, such an event might not feel like the Olympics, which is supposed to be a peaceful celebration of people from more than 200 countries. Can the Olympics be the Olympics without majestic opening and closing ceremonies in packed stadiums, or if events are spread out across multiple cities?

The questions may grow louder as the virus spreads further.

“It’s unusual, it’s unprecedented, it’s a complex issue,” Burns said, “and if something indeed happens, it will have a complex solution.”