If there’s one thing we know about sports in 2021, it’s that there will be sports in 2021. (Well, more sports than we’ve already had in the past week. Go, Bills!) 2020 made sure of that. If the NFL and college football — in which 22 competitors breathe heavily into one another’s faces for three hours — can complete their seasons in the middle of a rampaging pandemic, absolutely nothing will stop them from doing so in the future. Barring a global catastrophe that exceeds the pain of last year (and what a fun party game it would be to brainstorm what exactly that might constitute), sports have made it through the worst circumstances possible. They’re certainly not going to hit the brakes now.
Amid this spirit of semi-optimism, it’s easy to forget that not every sports enterprise successfully muddled through last year. Stand-alone events that involved international travel were considerably more difficult to pull off than contained, domestic league play. (Wimbledon and golf’s British Open were outright canceled.) Which brings us to the major event that didn’t take place last year, an event whose complicated logistics and staggering economic impact dwarf the Super Bowl, America’s annual celebration of excess.
And the Olympics are already less than 200 days away.
In case you’ve forgotten, the 2020 (now 2021) Summer Games are taking place in Tokyo, which won the rights to host the event all the way back in September 2013, barely outpacing Istanbul and Madrid in the bidding. Look how happy everyone is in this photo after learning they had won the bid; they had no idea what they were up against. The Games were originally scheduled for last July and August, but as COVID-19 made its way around the planet in early 2020, it became increasingly clear that those dates were unrealistic. By mid-March, after several countries said they wouldn’t send athletes unless the Games were postponed, then–Japanese prime minister Shinzo Abe came out in favor of the idea, and that did it: The very next day, the Olympics were pushed back to “beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021.” It was the first time the Games had been disrupted since 1944, when World War II canceled them. But the organizers were insistent that they would go on at a future date, saying the Games “stand as a beacon of hope to the world during these troubled times,” and the Olympic flame itself would be “the light at the end of the tunnel in which the world finds itself at present.”
The big difference between the canceled 1944 London Olympics and the postponed 2020 installment is the massive amount of money at risk of vanishing entirely. This version cost an estimated $25 billion (at least), making it the second-most-expensive Olympics ever, behind Beijing’s infamous $42 billion display of power in 2008. (Although the full accounting of Sochi 2014 is not yet complete.) And the ultimate amount may end up outpacing that: Tokyo has built nearly a dozen new buildings specifically for this Olympics, with billions more spent on infrastructure, security, marketing, and countless other details that arise when you’re hosting the biggest sporting event on earth. Parts of the Olympics are insured but not all of them, and not nearly enough to offset their cancellation. And there’s no making it up to Tokyo, either; the 2024 and 2028 Summer Olympics have already been awarded to Paris and Los Angeles, respectively. Losing the Games entirely would be apocalyptic.
And I have no idea how they’re going to pull this off. On Monday, current Japanese prime minister Yoshihide Suga called for a state-of-emergency declaration for Tokyo in the wake of a dramatic rise in COVID cases in the region, including a record-high number of 1,337 last Thursday. (“Dramatic,” of course, is relative: That number is one-sixth the number of cases that, say, Tennessee has seen on an average daily basis for the past week; the Tokyo region has nearly seven times as many people as Tennessee does. And you could go to a Memphis Grizzlies game right now if you wanted to.) This could lead to another shutdown just when the planning for the Olympics should be ramping up. As the Associated Press has pointed out, Olympics officials had delayed revealing their concrete plans for getting athletes into Tokyo safely, for the Olympic Village, for whether fans will be allowed, for pretty much everything until the beginning of the new year — and the new year is arriving right as the host city is in a state of emergency. It also seems the Japanese public is increasingly skeptical about holding the event, with an NHK poll showing “63 percent want the Olympics postponed or canceled.”
Even worse, the Olympics are an undertaking that requires months of preparation outside the host country. One reason the Games were initially postponed was because so many countries’ Olympic qualifiers had been scotched in the first few months of 2020. (Boxing’s qualification tournament had been slated for February 3 in … Wuhan.) Many of the countries where those events are meant to be held are experiencing even worse COVID surges than Tokyo is, and they have many fewer than 200 days to figure out how to proceed. The U.S. track-and-field Olympic trials, for example, are scheduled for June in Eugene, Oregon. How certain are you that they’ll be able to pull those off? Now imagine that problem in every single country across the planet. And even if the qualifiers do go on as scheduled, how do you get athletes into Tokyo safely? And put them all into the Olympic Village? And bring in the fans? The Games are a logistical nightmare in the best of times; when I went to Sochi for the Winter Olympics in 2014, it seemed like half the country of Russia had been brought in just to keep you from getting lost in the ski mountains. Now imagine an event ten times that size with the pandemic still raging.
Oh, and don’t forget the torch relay, which still hasn’t been postponed, even though it features tens of thousands of people gathering over several months: That’s scheduled to begin on March 25.
This all seems … impossible? On Sunday, NBC — which is as financially invested in the Olympics as any corporation on the planet — ran its first television ads for “Tokyo 2020” (as the Games are still being called). The Olympics are a massive expense for NBC with more than $12 billion spent for the broadcast rights. The event is intended not just to do boffo ratings during the fortnight in which it’s held but to boost the rest of the network’s programming. It’s one thing for CBS to lose the NCAA tournament, one of its primary revenue drivers; it’s quite another for the Olympics to vanish. The ads are a sign that NBC will push as hard as it can to make sure the Games go on as scheduled, but they feel more desperate than hopeful.
As sad as a potential cancellation would be for the athletes, you can’t help but wonder if a popping of the Olympic bubble would be a positive thing in the long term. The Olympics have, after all, increasingly become financially destructive to the host cities. The debt from the Sochi Olympics is reported to be costing Russian taxpayers a billion dollars a year for the foreseeable future, and many cities have declined to even bid for the Games in recent years. The mayor of Boston said the city had dropped out of the 2024 bidding because “I refuse to mortgage the future of the city away.” The NOlympics LA movement has gained traction since the city was awarded the 2028 Games. As currently constructed, the Olympics have become more trouble than they’re worth. Perhaps a cancellation this year will scale back aspirations for future Games and slow their escalating, increasingly destructive cost. It’s still possible the show will go on in Tokyo this summer. But even if it does, it’s likely to be a financial boondoggle that no city needs in the wake of the pandemic. One wonders if Tokyo will regret ever winning the bid in the first place.