What does Tokyo 2021 mean?
On March 24 it became official that the summer Olympics would be postponed until 2021. The Olympics have never been postponed and they have only been canceled in wartime, but the global pandemic sweeping the world is completely unprecedented and like everyone else the sports world is trying to figure out what to do.
In the past week many athletes have spoken about the need to postpone the Olympics due to the uncertainty in the future and their limited access to training. Prior to the announcement from the International Olympic Committee (IOC), Canada and then Australia said they would not participate in the Tokyo 2020 Games. Several individuals involved in Olympic sports also penned letters to the IOC and other important organizations in the governance of the Games encouraging postponement. The United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) sent out a survey to determine the ability of athletes to train in this time of global crisis and on March 23, based on the results, endorsed postponement of the Olympics. This movement indicated that the Games would almost certainly be postponed, it was just a matter of when the IOC would decide and what they would do.
Results from the USOPC's survey of athletes about their ability to train amid global pandemic
We now know that the Olympics will definitely be postponed, but the details remain uncertain. The country that hosts the Olympics makes a huge investment into the facilities and they are counting on the revenue from the Games. Japan has already incurred a great deal of costs, but there are questions about how to keep those costs under control as they sort through postponement. For example, many of the facilities which were reserved for use during the 2020 Summer Olympics have already been booked for other events during the summer of 2021, so securing them for a postponed Olympics could get more expensive. Japan will also have to consider ticket holders. Tushiro Muto the chief executive of Tokyo 2020 says that they will prioritize people who have already bought tickets or were already selected as volunteers, but many are going to face new conflicts and so the Tokyo committee is going to have a lot on its plate.
Tshiro Muto (left) and Yoshiro Mori (center), the president of Tokyo 2020, at a news conference on March 23
The IOC relies on the Summer Olympics for income and now their expected income is going to be delayed. They use the revenue from the Olympics to support tons of sports federations and national Olympic bodies, which will all still need their funding. Broadcasters are one of the biggest sources of income and this delay will cause a delay in receiving those fees. NBC usually pays just before the Olympics start, so that payment could be deferred for a year. The IOC is now at the mercy of corporations like NBC. They could ask for an advance payment and perhaps NBC will be understanding in this tumultuous time, but the broadcasting company has its own schedule to worry about.
In addition to broadcasters, Olympic sponsors are now uncertain. Many were just finishing up production of their ad campaigns, but now they will have to update and revise them. This will incur additional costs on those companies, raising questions about their sponsorship in 2021. As these companies scramble to figure out what to do about their ads, athletes are also facing questions about their individual sponsorships. For many Olympic athletes, these sponsorships are a big source of their income, particularly during the Olympics, so this additional uncertainty raises financial questions for them.
Still more athletes don’t have sufficient sponsorships to support them in the first place, so they are uncertain of whether they can continue training for a year. Although many athletes supported the postponement because they can’t train right now, they are now uncertain of what another year without a full-time job could mean. Olympic athletes train on a four-year cycle and many put off a year or more of school or work to prepare for the Olympics. Can they continue to put off their profession? Should they try to juggle a job and training? Does this mean that it’s time for retirement? Steele Johnson, an American diver, won a silver medal at the Rio Games, but has been living paycheck to paycheck as he tries to train for a gold medal in Tokyo. It’s hard to imagine another year of those sacrifices, so he is faced with figuring out if he can get a full-time job and keep training or if he can struggle through another year. Some Olympic hopefuls were just high school seniors, which seemed like perfect timing, but now they will have to decide if they should put off college to train for next summer or if they can balance their first year of college and preparing for the Olympics. Older athletes like swimmer and five-time Olympic gold medalist Katie Ledecky (23 years old) have already put off a year of college to train. At her level, it is probably a no brainer to put off her senior year again. But for others like Olympic rower Gevvie Stone (34 years old) who put off her residency in emergency medicine for two years the decision is less obvious. In the coming months, athletes will have to decide if they can make it another year or if unfortunate timing has ended their Olympic dreams and it is time to turn to a full-time career beyond their sport.
Ledecky stays positive amidst global pandemic and news of Olympic postponement
Although we now know that the Summer Olympics is now Tokyo 2021, there is still a lot of uncertainty surrounding the event. In the coming weeks, the Tokyo 2020 committee and IOC should release official dates at which point logistics can be sorted out. In the meantime, as athletes search for temporary training options (even if the Olympics are postponed, they can’t afford to stop training all together), many will also face a decision about whether they can still go for gold in 2021 or if this may be the end of their Olympic dreams.