As huge crowds defied coronavirus fears to queue for hours to see the Olympic flame in northern Japan, a report emerged that organisers of Tokyo 2020 have begun drafting alternatives to holding the Games this summer.
In contrast to the official line from the Japanese government and the IOC, two sources familiar with the talks have told news agency Reuters that options for postponing the Games are now being drawn up.
While the coronavirus outbreak has disrupted sports events around the world, Japan has been steadfast in saying that the Games will go on. The top government spokesman on Wednesday said Tokyo wasn’t preparing for postponement.
The flame arrived in Japan to a scaled-down welcoming ceremony on Friday, but on Saturday more than 50,000 people queued to watch it being displayed at Sendai station in Miyagi. Some had to stay in a 500-metre queue for several hours, local media said.
Shinzo Abe has staked his legacy as Japan’s longest-serving prime minister on the Games and is hoping for a boom in tourism and consumer spending. At risk is more than $3bn in domestic sponsorship, an Olympic record, and some $12bn spent on preparations.
“Finally, we have been asked to make a simulation in case of a postponement,” said one of the sources, an official close to the organising committee who is involved in drafting the scenarios. Both sources spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorised to speak to the media.
“We are making alternative plans – plan B, C, D – looking at different postponement timeframes,” said the official, adding the scenarios included cost estimates for different delays.
Neither Tokyo 2020 organisers nor the International Olympic Committee (IOC) immediately responded to a request for comment. The government of Japan could not be reached for comment.
The options, which include scaling back the Games or holding them without spectators, would be debated by the organising committee at the end of March, the official said.
The second source, who is also close to the Tokyo 2020 organising committee, confirmed that postponement was being discussed, including delays of one or two years.
Some organising staff were holding out hope for a delay of a month or 45 days, said the official involved in drafting the scenarios. A final decision on postponement will have to come from the IOC but Japan’s stance also matters.
The IOC and its powerful chief, Thomas Bach, say the Games will go ahead as planned, drawing fire from athletes who say that could be a health risk.
Two other insiders, both senior members of the Tokyo 2020 organising committee, echoed those concerns. One of them, a board member of the organising committee, said the decision to postpone should be made quickly.
“The more they push the decision away … more and more preparations have to be made – this will cause cancellation fees to go through the roof,” the board member said.
Bach recently appeared to shift his tone, saying the IOC was “considering different scenarios”.
The official involved in drafting scenarios said a long delay could spark complaints from older athletes and require keeping sponsors on board for longer. Another headache is the Olympic village, due to be converted to flats after the Games.
The summer 2021 sporting calendar is already crowded while 2022 will see the soccer World Cup and the Beijing Winter Olympics.
Japanese sponsors are nervous, company representatives have said privately. Major sponsors include Toyota Motor Corp and Panasonic Corp.
“Of course companies are individually discussing what to do,” said a representative of one of the more than 60 sponsors. “No one wants to be the first to say anything about the possibility of a postponement.”
Japan Airlines Co discussed that there was an 80% chance the Olympics would not be held as scheduled on a recent internal conference call, a person briefed on the call said.