Can the Olympics be cancelled?

According to Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto, there is “100%” certainty the Olympic Games will go ahead. However, the decision from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to push ahead with the Games has come amid disapproval from the Japanese public, and serious health and safety concerns from athletes, staff, fans, and citizens. 

The pandemic concerns 

Earlier this year, a fourth wave of COVID-19 hit Japan. In the last two weeks, there has been a sustained increase in locally acquired cases, despite 13.8% of the population being fully vaccinated. 

Whilst the Games are still two weeks away, some athletes have already withdrawn. Samoa withdrew their entire weightlifting team, two members of the Ugandan delegation and one Serbian athlete tested positive after landing in Japan. Yesterday, Olympic organisers confirmed two staff working at the athletes’ village tested positive for COVID-19. 

Additional health measures put in place for the Olympics 

  • Fans from other countries are banned from attending the Tokyo games 
  • Up to 10,000 Japanese fans will be permitted to attend an event, providing crowds do not exceed 50% of a venue’s capacity. However, there is the possibility for the cap to be lowered to 5,000 or even none at all for some events
  • Fans must wear masks, and must not cheer or sing 
  • Athletes and staff will be tested for COVID-19 before departure and on arrival in Japan
  • Participants (including athletes, coaches and support staff) will be tested for COVID-19 daily
  • Recently, the Olympic torch relay was scrapped on Tokyo’s public roads due to health concerns 

Despite these measures, The World Players Association (the body that represents athletes) has urged the IOC to do more to protect athletes, proposing stricter physical distancing and more frequent testing.

But can Tokyo even cancel the Olympics? 

Opinion polls conducted by some of the largest Japanese newspapers in May showed that between 60% and 80% of respondents wanted the games either cancelled or postponed. But can the Games be cancelled?  

This is where it can get a little tricky. It’s important to distinguish that the IOC ‘owns’ the Games and, when a country wins the right to host the Games, they enter into a contractual obligation to host them on the IOC’s terms. The IOC alone can choose to terminate the contract – not Japan. If the Games were cancelled, there would be serious financial implications. 70% of the IOC’s revenue comes from TV broadcast rights, and 18% from sponsorship. Historically, the only time the IOC has cancelled the Olympics has been in times of war or civil disorder. Despite the health risks posed by the holding of the Games in Tokyo, the host city is extremely limited in its rights to move the timing of the Games, or cancel them entirely. 

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