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How Devastating is Olympic Postponement?

The only physical gathering of the entire world is lost at a time when global unity is paramount.

With the expected announcement that the 2020 Summer Olympics set for Tokyo have been postponed for up to one year, the world suffers a body blow at a time when the almost 200 nations on the planet are compelled to unite in the fight against a truly common enemy.

COVID-19 is not mindful of race, religion, or national origin. It is an equal opportunity killer, striking every people on every continent except Antarctica. So the loss, temporary as it is, of the only institution that actually brings the world together physically every two years is more than just another in a long line of once-unthinkable postponements and cancellations.

There is some good news, however. The Olympics should be better positioned to absorb this postponement than any of the other major leagues and tournaments. The NBA and NHL ground to a halt in the closing stages of their teams’ drive to lucrative postseason competition. Major League Baseball shut down before opening day. How, or even whether, these major sports can pick up where they left off in 2020 is an issue far from the radar screen right now.

Most painful of all was the cancellation of March Madness, a legendary cultural tradition, which will never take place. Millions were affected by the loss of the 2020 NCAA basketball tournament, foremost among them the college seniors working all season for a shot at glory but denied the opportunity forever.

This Olympic postponement – some four months before the scheduled start of the competition – will undoubtedly impact the carefully crafted preparations of world-class athletes, primarily those of advancing age. However, the entire operation can be pushed back and restarted far more seamlessly, one suspects, than a competition that was already well underway or about to begin.

Then comes the question of whether the Olympic movement can handle this wrenching disturbance to meticulously planned moments on the world stage. The likely answer is yes, not just because of the ability to postpone rather than cancel the games, but because it has survived many disruptions before. Through the cancellation of the 1940 and ‘44 Olympics because of World War Two, the explosive black power salute of American athletes in 1968, multiple doping scandals, the U.S. boycott of the Moscow games in 1980 following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the Soviets’ retaliatory boycott of the LA games four years later, the Olympics endure.

But what about Japan? The country fought its own battle against the virus as it prepared for the arrival of athletes and dignitaries from across the globe. How badly will the economy suffer from the postponement of vital income relied upon to offset the astronomical costs of hosting the Olympics?

The financial obligations incurred in hosting this world competition have skyrocketed, while the economic benefits are dubious. That is why the demand to host the big event has diminished sharply in recent times.

No doubt there accrues to host nations a level of recognition and glamor that is difficult to quantify. But when the music dies and the applause and acclaim fade into history, what is left? In short, massive debt.

The 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro were a long-term disaster, leaving in their wake almost unsustainable financial obligations, ongoing maintenance costs for abandoned facilities, underequipped public services, and rising crime. But it was just the latest in a long line of messes left for host cities and countries to clean up.

The reality of how quickly the best-laid plans can spiral out of control hit like a sledgehammer in 1976. Montreal exceeded its projected $124 million Olympic budget almost exponentially, leaving the city with a legendary dump of a stadium and a $1.5 billion debt, which took some three decades to pay off. With most of the world scared off by the Montreal debacle, Los Angeles was the only city to bid on the 1984 Games and became the last host city to actually turn a profit – $215 million.

The bidding picked up after that, but then it dropped again as it became increasingly apparent that the price tag for hosting the world would put a dent in any national economy: $45 billion for Beijing’s Summer Games in 2008, over $50 billion for the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, $20 billion for Rio de Janeiro in 2016, $13 billion (up from the $7 billion projected initially) for the 2018 Winter Olympics in PyeongChang, South Korea.

These types of investments are mostly sold to the people with an emotional appeal to patriotism and national pride, absent the obligations attached to such prestige, which take hold the moment they dim the lights on the closing ceremonies. A number of cities have withdrawn their bids for the 2022, 2024, and 2028 Games, including Boston, Oslo, Stockholm, Budapest, Hamburg, and Rome.

So we can now add the Olympics to the lengthening list of things so many of us count on and shall sorely miss. But the promise that the games will indeed begin, albeit up to 365 days beyond our expectations, should at least for a moment draw us back to the now-fading images of what normal life was once like, and the promise of what it will soon be again.


Read more from Tim Donner.

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