Why did it take so long for the IOC to postpone the Tokyo Olympics? It’s complicated

By Dave Feschuk, Sports Columnist. (dfeschuk@thestar.ca) Originally published March 24, 2020 at https://www.thestar.com/sports/amateur/opinion/2020/03/24/the-delay-in-the-decision-to-postpone-the-tokyo-olympics-was-in-the-details.html

In waiting until Tuesday to announce the postponement of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics until the summer of 2021 on account of the coronavirus, the International Olympic Committee and its partners in Japan took no end of reputational hits.

They were accused of head-in-the-sand leadership that prioritized money over the health and welfare of athletes. Along the way they ceded moral leadership to the likes of Canada, which on Sunday became the first country to announce it wouldn’t send athletes to Tokyo if the Games went on as planned. As public-relations disasters go, it was a doozy.

But John Furlong, once the president and CEO of the organizing committee that pulled off the watershed Vancouver Olympics in 2010, sympathized with organizers’ plight.

“It’s heartbreaking for these guys,” Furlong said in an interview. “I just have to tell you I get out of bed every morning and I just look at what they have to deal with, and I just shudder that we would have had a problem as big as this. And we had plenty to deal with, believe me.”

Still, it’s fair to ask: What took so long to come to a decision that many saw as inevitable for a days? The short answer: It’s complicated.

“Extremely complicated,” said John Mehrzad, a specialist sports lawyer at Littleton Chambers in London, England. “I have no hesitation in saying that the (legal) disputes that are going to arise out of this situation are going to run for a few years. And it will probably be across jurisdictions and across the world.”

Indeed, the Olympics, along with being one of the world’s great sporting spectacles, is also a dizzying maze of commercial agreements stacked upon insurance policies piled atop a multi-billion-dollar global enterprise. More than one expert surveying the situation this week figured it’s a sure thing that IOC president Thomas Bach and Japan’s various stakeholders, including Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, spent the days leading up to Tuesday’s decision weighing the public-relations damage being incrementally incurred against mitigating the ramifications of a postponement that will undoubtedly bring financial damage.

“If Bach and Prime Minister Abe wanted to be decisive, they could have called this off weeks ago, and I suspect most of the world would have applauded them,” Mehrzad said. “But at the same time they might have been applauded they may have left their organizations exposed financially.”

Figuring out who’ll pay for the inevitable financial losses — and how much is covered by insurance — could have been another factor in the seemingly slow response to the crisis, said Kirk Pasich, an insurance-coverage lawyer based in Los Angeles and New York who has represented major sports entities.

“Most of these policies have a clause in them that says the cancellation or disruption has to be because of something beyond your control,” Pasich said. “A pandemic is beyond the IOC’s control. But if it were to cancel or postpone it too soon, then you might get the argument from the insurers that this wasn’t beyond their control — that it didn’t have to disrupt the event.”

There are those who saw such financially driven concern — not to mention the tone-deaf insistence to run the Olympic torch relay amid calls for social distancing — as an affront to the athletes who are the beating heart of every Games. Ron Koehler, the Montreal-based director general of the advocacy group Global Athlete, said Bach had his “head in the sand” after the IOC president released a Sunday statement lamenting, among other things, the potential loss of millions of nights in hotel stays connected to the Games.

“We have a global economy tanking, hotels all over the world are empty, airlines are shut down — and he wants sympathy that there’s hotel rooms not filled in Tokyo,” Koehler said.

Furlong, for his part, said it is in the IOC’s DNA, as big and powerful as it is, to sweat the small stuff, a reality that hit him when he and his fellow organizers signed Vancouver’s host-city agreement moments after winning the right to hold the Games in 2003.

“(The host-city agreement is) like a book you’d see in the Library of Congress. Massive. And it’s full of minuscule detail,” Furlong said. “So it’s not like you can just say, ‘Oh well, we’ll just move the date.’ You’re not moving one or two or three things, you’re moving hundreds of things at the same time.”

One example of a headache-inducing complication? Consider the athletes’ village, which in Tokyo, as in Vancouver, is slated to become condominiums after the Games with units already sold for prices ranging from $700,000 into the millions, according to reports in Japanese media.

“Now what happens to these homes and what happens to these people?” Furlong said. “And how do you unravel the layers of complexity just around that one thing?”

It’s an organizer’s nightmare.

“Watching them now, I just know that they have been in these conversations now, around the clock, for probably five months,” Furlong said.

In other words, while some wonder why it took so long, there are those amazed it happened so fast.

“It would have taken years to get everything in place. To unpick it all in weeks is actually quite impressive,” Mehrzad said.

Mehrzad said the acknowledgment that both the IOC and Japan were in “100 per cent agreement” on the postponement was significant. The legalities in the host-city agreement meant if Japan would have unilaterally insisted on a disruption, Japan, which has invested a reported $20 billion (U.S.) in the Games, would likely have been on the hook for any losses the IOC incurred. That doesn’t mean there won’t be other aggrieved parties looking to recoup cash.

Furlong said the IOC is obsessive in planning for the unexpected, demanding organizers supply plans with “backups upon backups upon backups.” In the lead-up to the 2010 Games, for instance, Furlong said his organizing committee was made to do rigorous planning for the event of a mild British Columbia winter. Even though the prevailing opinion of experts figured a shortage of snow would be unlikely, snow was stockpiled all the same. And the stockpiled snow, as the story goes, proved necessary. A contingency plan that even to Furlong’s eye seemed excessive saved the day.

“If you said to me we’re going to haul snow 24 hours a day for six weeks before the Games from 100 miles away, honestly, I would have had you taken away in a straitjacket,” Furlong said.

All that said, it’s hard to imagine even the most fastidious of planners would have conjured the current predicament.

“The IOC does a lot of planning for major interruptions or black-swan events,” Furlong said. “But this is just so far off of what anybody would be thinking of when they were trying to plan for the Games.”

Furlong, who is involved in a potential bid to bring the 2030 Olympics to Vancouver, acknowledged that the scale of the 2010 Games were relatively modest compared to the summer version of the Olympics planned for Tokyo. Vancouver involved about 2,500 athletes in 15 sporting disciplines. The Tokyo Games, now scheduled for an as-yet-undetermined date in 2021, are expected to welcome some 11,000 athletes in 50 disciplines. The scale of the thing speaks to the labour — and the number of lawyers — that will be required to reschedule.

But if the legal parrying is just beginning, there are those who believe the likes of Bach and Abe, as much as they’ve been criticized in recent days, have increased their chances of fighting another day, too. If the modern world is equipped with a short collective memory, it’s possible the IOC and Japan have now positioned the Tokyo Olympics to be a shimmering global celebration in the wake of a common calamity. What a difference a year could make, indeed.

“It’s quite a nice story,” Mehrzad said. “But it will have come at a cost.”

It will have come at a cost even Furlong has a hard time fathoming.

“My heart’s broken for these guys,” Furlong said, speaking of the Tokyo organizers. “Because at the time (of the 2008 financial crisis), we were walking around saying we were the only organizing committee in history that had confronted financial conditions in the world that we were then facing. All of the money dried up … I thought we were seeing the worst of it. And compared to this, it was child’s play.”