The 2020 Olympics conundrum and the fear of the Coronavirus.

The Olympics have a $900 million reserve fund for canceled games.

As the International Olympic Committee looks ahead to the Summer Games with trepidation, it does have something that could cushion the blow in case of cancellation: a $897 million reserve fund to help finance global sports.

As the coronavirus outbreak rages, Tokyo Olympics organizers say there’s no “Plan B.” The summer games will begin on July 24 – and what an extravaganza Shinzo Abe’s government claims to have in store for sports enthusiasts everywhere.

Yet doubters have 38,000 reasons to wonder if the Japanese Olympic Committee is dreaming. That’s how many runners were recently told the March 1 Tokyo marathon has been cancelled. Only an elite group of 176 – and 30 wheelchair athletes – will compete in the 42.195-kilometer event.

It’s an improbable scenario, but one drawing more consideration as the coronavirus continues to spread around the world. A number of global sporting events and Olympic qualifiers have been canceled, and many are now wondering how the outbreak might effect the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, scheduled to start at the end of July.

If there is panic in Tokyo, officials aren’t letting on. About the most emotional take comes from Tokyo Olympics CEO Toshiro Muto, who admitted he’s “seriously worried” about the impact the coronavirus could have on the “momentum towards the Games.” Not on the Games themselves, but how the public discourse is focusing on whether Japan is safe for travel.

This is a deeply sensitive topic. Tokyo howled in protest last week over posters in South Korea depicting Olympic torchbearers in anti-radiation hazmat suits, a reference to the 2011 nuclear crisis in Fukushima. JOC officials also are fending off warnings about threats that Tokyo’s extreme summer heat may pose to athletes.

Some media outlets are less sanguine. In a February 15 editorial, the Asahi Shimbun warned it’s “time to face the real possibility of a coronavirus epidemic at home.” Worries around a potential pandemic arrived in Japan with the quarantined cruise ship Diamond Princess currently docked at Yokohama Port. Among the ranks of the 3,700 people on board was the biggest outbreak outside China.

Reports of local transmissions, albeit modest in number, are making headlines abroad. Increasingly, multinational companies are avoiding travel to Japan. Prada cancelled a big Japan fashion show scheduled for May.

“We are seeing companies in several countries besides China, such as India, that are refusing business trips from Japanese partners,” said Japan Foreign Trade Council chairman Kuniharu Nakamura. “This reminds us again of the severity of the impact.”

Japan’s tourism business is taking ever bigger hits. Already, Prime Minister Abe’s plan to woo 40 million tourists this year is a non-starter. And another body blow for an economy that plunged an annualized 6.3% in the fourth quarter. Mainland Chinese, it’s worth noting, account for 40% of all tourist expenditures in Japan.

Much of Abe’s ambitious tourism goal centers on Tokyo 2020, a coming-out party he hopes places Japan on the bucket-list of travelers around the globe. Instead, Japan’s media are fending off what they deem misinformation about health risks. In a recent editorial, the Mainichi newspaper called on Tokyo to “provide accurate info on virus spread to prevent anxiety [and] discrimination.”

The Mainichi and other outlets have taken to quashing social media chatter about Tokyo 2020 being cancelled. Such reports have trended on and off since January 30. More recently, the media have been highlighting news that US President Donald Trump might attend the Olympics. On February 18, Trump said: “We’ll make that determination. We haven’t made it yet, but we might.”


Part of the “might” may depend on how Japan fares with the coronavirus. On February 20, Japan announced that two passengers from the cruise ship moored near Tokyo had died. Hardly news that helps Abe’s government spin the outbreak as controllable. More than 620 people on that ocean liner have tested positive so far.

Let’s say, for argument’s sake, that the coronavirus morphs into a full-blown pandemic come July. Tokyo would confront an unprecedented situation, the first time the Games were postponed or shelved for reasons other than a world war.

By some forecasts, Tokyo may end up lavishing some $26 billion on the Olympics and Paralympics, dwarfing the roughly $7 billion it was originally estimated the event would cost.

Outright cancellation is far less of a risk than postponement. To even entertain the possibility of cancellation would require that the worst-case scenarios for the coronavirus mutating and spreading round the globe like wildfire to prove true.

Even the best-case scenarios for Japan at this moment in 2020 auger poorly for the next several months. So much for the medal-caliber economic year Abe thought was in store for Japan Inc.

OP: Asia Times Information

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