IOC says 2020 Olympics are still happening, but skepticism creeping in

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A man wearing a face mask has his photograph taken in front of the Olympic Rings in Odaiba on March 5, 2020 in Tokyo, Japan.

Carl Court | Getty Images

The 2020 Summer Olympics haven’t been canceled or postponed. But people are starting to consider the possibility that they’ll be the next major event to go. 

The Olympics are set to start July 24 in Tokyo. Yesterday, French Olympic Committee president Denis Masseglia told Reuters that if the COVID-19 coronavirus isn’t contained by the end of May, he couldn’t see how the Olympics could happen on time.

The comment contradicted Japan’s Olympic minister Seiko Hashimoto, who said March 13 that “The IOC and the organizing committee are not considering cancellation or a postponement – absolutely not at all.”

The IOC reinforced its commitment to starting the Olympics on time in a statement Tuesday, but hedged Hashimoto’s statement by saying there is “no need for any drastic decisions at this stage.”

“Any speculation at this moment would be counter-productive,” the IOC said in a statement. “The IOC encourages all athletes to continue to prepare for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 as best they can….The situation around the COVID-19 virus is also impacting the preparations for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, and is changing day by day.”

While professional sports leagues across the globe are delaying their events and seasons in preparation of an extended coronavirus quarantine, nothing would be as significant as an outright cancellation of the Olympics, a biennial event that’s estimated to contribute tens of billions of dollars to the Japanese economy. Amateur athletes in sports such as swimming and track and field can only participate in events every four years. Cancelling their shot at participation would be devastating to them, in addition to the thousands of Japanese small businesses counting on tourism that’s now in doubt.

33 million visitors expected

There has been a wave of sports cancellations over the past week, with events set to begin in May and June pushed back. The French Open announced on Tuesday it would push its tournament back from May 24 to Sept. 20. The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) announced it was delaying its Euro 2020 soccer tournament, set to start in June, by 12 months. The National Basketball League, Major League Baseball and the National Hockey League have all suspended their seasons already. The Kentucky Derby, which was originally scheduled for May 2, will be moved to Sept. 5. 

While coronavirus hasn’t spread rampantly through Japan as it has in other countries, the Games require athletes from all over the world to fly to Japan and compete in close quarters — with or without fans. The situation in Japan might not matter if other countries fare worse or if international travel is banned or curtailed.

Cancellation will have a significant impact on economic growth in Japan, former Bank of Japan board member Sayuri Shirai told CNBC Tuesday. Many local businesses have already made investments in restaurants and tourist activities to prepare for large international crowds.

“A lot of [small business] investment has been counting on the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, and now it’s not clear if we can hold it or not,” Shirai said. “This is quite a serious issue.”

Shirai said Japanese officials have maintained optimism because the economic impact to Japan would be devastating and the government “doesn’t want to talk about it.” She said cancellation would be the worst outcome and said “postponement to next year” would be a far better outcome for Japan. The BOJ had estimated 33 million visitors were set to visit Tokyo in 2020 and “aggregate construction investment associated with the Olympic Games will amount to a total of 10 trillion yen ($92 billion).” 

Even if the Olympics proceed on time, the Games could be modified so that certain countries don’t participate or certain events don’t take place, said Joe Favorito, who has over 30 years of strategic communications experience in sports and entertainment. 

“I think everything’s on the table right now,” said Favorito. “I think the feeling among senior executives is ‘say we’re going forward until we’re not.’ As soon as you start saying we may not be doing it, all you’ll hear is ‘we’re not doing it.’ An event like the Olympics affects many lives, not just the athletes.”

The NBA’s participation in doubt

If the NBA season restarts in the summer, superstar players could sit out the Olympics if the league is still in progress. Agents are already discussing risks with players and could convince them to remain homes if there are any remaining concerns about health risks. 

“There are going to be some interesting conversations once we find out how the NBA will proceed,” said top agent Billy Duffy of BDA Sports, who also represents top NBA international stars like Dallas Mavericks’ Luka Doncic who is expected to compete on the Slovenian national team.

Another prominent NBA agent suggested Team USA basketball officials should consider using top college basketball players, who will not be able to participate in the NCAA Tournament as the event was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic. USA Basketball used amateur players for most of the 20th century before FIBA (Fédération Internationale de Basketball) changed its rules to allow professional players. 

The agent, who discussed the matter with CNBC on condition of remaining anonymous, said he doubts top players will play in the Olympics unless the NBA cancels the remainder of the season which “I just don’t see,” he said.

NBC’s insurance policy 

Comcast’s NBCUniversal paid more than $1 billion for the right to air the 2020 Tokyo games, part of a $4.38 billion deal for four Olympics struck in 2011. NBCUniversal said earlier this month it had sold more than $1.25 billion in advertising for the Games, a record for any broadcaster. 

While canceling the Games would be a setback for the media company, it wouldn’t be disastrous. That’s because Comcast purchased a comprehensive insurance policy in case the Olympics are canceled.

“There should be no losses should there not be an Olympics,” Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said at the Morgan Stanley Technology, Media & Telecom conference earlier this month. Another NBC Sports source called the policy “pretty solid” and said there was little concern internally about cancellation in terms of financial losses.

NBC hasn’t heard anything from the IOC suggesting it is preparing from postponement or cancellation, according to a person familiar with the matter who asked not to be named because the discussions are private. 

Disclosure: Comcast is the owner of NBCUniversal, parent company of CNBC and CNBC.com.

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