LANE ONE: In a crisis, discipline and focus are hard to maintain, as Tokyo 2020 is finding out

The coronavirus is a major public-health crisis which is having impacts in many countries and is causing the cancellation, delay or implosion of mass gatherings, a list that may possibly include the Games of the XXXII Olympiad this summer in Tokyo, Japan.

In such times, it’s crucial not to panic, and to focus on the tasks ahead and the available options.

For a group like the Tokyo Olympic organizers, with the Games scheduled to start on 24 July and the Olympic Village opening on 14 July, discipline is key. That discipline broke down on Tuesday.

The Wall Street Journal published a story headlined “If Olympics Can’t Be Held This Summer, Best to Postpone 1-2 Years: Japan Organizing Official,” quoting Haruyuki Takahashi, a Tokyo 2020 Board member, and formerly a senior managing director at the Japanese marketing giant Dentsu.

The story quoted Takahashi as saying “I don’t think the Games could be canceled; it’d be a delay. The International Olympic Committee would be in trouble if there’s a cancellation. American TV rights alone provide them with a huge amount” and “We’ll have to start talking about this seriously from April.”

Seeing a comment like this from a Tokyo 2020 Board member and not from CEO Yoshiro Mori – a former Prime Minister of Japan – or national Olympics minister Seiko Hashimoto or Tokyo Governor Yuriko Koike, is astounding.

Having worked on 20 multi-day, multi-site events in my own career, including five Olympic/Olympic Winter Games, this kind of behavior has always been unacceptable. Just about 36 years ago, in early 1984, the Los Angeles Olympic Organizing Committee also faced a major threat from a potential Soviet boycott – as retaliation for the U.S.-led boycott of the 1980 Moscow Games – with the possibility that the event could come apart.

As the Vice President for Press Operations in those days, I was leading a planning team of 25 staff getting ready for 8,700 news media – including broadcasters – coming to cover the Games. As LAOOC employees, our protocol was clear: talk to the press, without permission, and you were subject to being fired … immediately. Same for the LAOOC Board members. Any official word would come from chief executive Peter Ueberroth, or through News Secretary Amy Quinn.

When the announcement of the Soviet boycott came on 8 May – also the day the coast-to-coast Olympic Torch Relay began – the LAOOC staff was called together in the cavernous former Hughes Helicopter design facility that was our headquarters by the late Harry Usher, our Executive Vice President/General Manager. His message was clear: no one talks to the press other than Ueberroth, Quinn and the news relations staff.

But there was also a plan of action. The race was now on to recruit countries to come to the Los Angeles Games, and not join the Soviet boycott. After 92 countries attended the Montreal Games in 1976 – which was boycotted by 29 African nations – only 80 competed in Moscow in 1980 as 66 countries stayed away as part of the U.S.-led boycott effort.

If the Soviet-led boycott gained steam, there was a contractual possibility that a significant part of the $225 million ABC-TV rights fees could be withheld, or even disappear.

Although LAOOC employees went silent to news media calls for comments, they burned up the phone and telex lines with outreach efforts to National Olympic Committee officials they knew. In our department, our athlete-information researcher, Nejat Kok, had a close relationship with the NOC of Turkey and made direct contacts to get the Turks to formally commit to come to the Games. With staff members from several dozen countries on the LAOOC, the numbers added up quickly.

In the end, a record total of 140 nations came to the Los Angeles Games, in part because the communications efforts were aimed at a goal of assuring the success of the event, not talking to the news media.

Has Takahashi helped or hurt the situation?

I suggest that he has hurt the Tokyo organizing efforts by continuing to take the attention away from the promotion of the summer’s potential stars and away from the Games, and playing up the speculation aspect. He may be proved right, but there is no way to know now.

Takahashi also created an entirely new discussion, of when a postponed Tokyo Games would take place. He opined that a 2022 Games would be more likely, since there was already so much activity planned for 2021. He knows what he’s talking about:

Jul. 15-25: World Games in Birmingham, Alabama (USA)
Jul. 16-Aug. 1: FINA World Aquatics Championships in Fukuoka (JPN)
Aug. 6-15: World Athletics Championships in Eugene, Oregon (USA)

Feb. 4-20: Olympic Winter Games in Beijing (CHN)
Jul. 27-Aug. 7: Commonwealth Games in Birmingham (GBR)
Sep. 10-25: Asian Games in Hangzhou (CHN)
Nov. 21-Dec. 19: FIFA World Cup in Qatar

A 2022 Olympic Games in July and early August would upset the Commonwealth Games program completely – possibly delayed to 2023 – but would (unusually) steer clear of the World Cup thanks to its being held so late due to the high heat of the Middle East summer.

Someone who does have the standing to talk about what to do about the Games is the senior member of the International Olympic Committee, Canadian Dick Pound. In late February , he told the Associated Press that a decision would have to be taken by late May to either cancel – which he thought more probable – or postpone the Tokyo Games. He said:

“In and around that time, I’d say folks are going to have to ask: ‘Is this under sufficient control that we can be confident about going to Tokyo or not?’”

So let’s wait. Despite assurances that everything is “full steam ahead” right now, there can be little doubt that studies of the issue are underway inside the Tokyo organizing committee and Takahashi’s comments reflect that. But there is no clear outcome, and the massive shutdown in Italy is designed to break the cycle of expansion seen in the virus in that country.

Readers of this column sent comments in January questioning how the SportsAccord conference scheduled for Beijing in mid-April could be held. Lo and behold, on 20 February, the event was moved to Lausanne, Switzerland … which is now facing its own coronavirus threat and the event could be postponed, or moved again, or canceled.

Serious decisions, made by serious people, come when the issue is ripe for determination, not before. Pound says the decision point is likely in May and given his 60-year experience with the Olympic Games, that should be respected, especially since no contrary viewpoint to his comments has come from the IOC otherwise.

One more thing. The calls to make a determination about the Games now, or to set “red lines” that would trigger a specific decision, are the most athlete-unfriendly action the IOC or the Tokyo organizers could take at this time. The athletes want to compete and are continuing to train for the Games, or qualify to get there. They deserve that chance, and advancing scenarios to make as early a decision on the Games as possible doesn’t help them at all. As Pound said with clarity two weeks ago, “All indications are at this stage that it will be business as usual. So keep focused on your sport and be sure that the IOC is not going to send you into a pandemic situation.”

Did Takahashi’s comments help move the Tokyo organizers forward? It’s hard to see how, especially at a time when discipline and focus are needed, and needed now.

Rich Perelman

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