If there was any doubt about how serious Japan is about hosting this summer’s Olympic Games as safely as is possible in the midst of a global pandemic, there is none now. On Friday (26th), the International Olympic Committee posted a message which included:
“[T]he Japanese government had made it very clear that [the foreign spectator ban] also requires a very significant reduction in the numbers of accredited participants who do not have essential and operational responsibilities. For obvious reasons, the IOC and IPC had to fully accept and respect these conclusions. …
“The IOC [Executive Board] has cancelled or reduced the IOC Guest Programme, the invitations to Olympic athlete legends and a number of other programmes. It will also not grant accreditation to any accompanying guest in any category.”
Kyodo News reported:
● “About 90,000 people had been expected to enter Japan from abroad, including about 30,000 athletes, coaches and team members.” This includes 11,000+ athletes for the Olympic Games and more than 4,000 for the Paralympic Games, and the accompanying staffs from their National Olympic Committees.
● That leaves about 60,000 others, of which the Japanese would like to see 30,000 cut. That includes news media, which take up a big part of that number.
For Rio in 2016, there were 25,696 news media accredited – that’s 43% of 60,000 – including:
(1) 12,912 from rights-holding broadcasters, including NBC from the U.S.
(2) 6,877 from the Host Broadcaster, the Olympic Broadcast Service (OBS)
(3) 5,897 press and photographers from around the world
There were an additional 6,695 news media who were supported by a special media center operated by the Rio de Janeiro government and not accredited for the Games. That program will have to essentially be eliminated.
To obtain the kind of reductions that the Japanese are looking for, there will be some hard conversations with broadcasters who have paid $1 billion or more – in the case of NBC – to broadcast the Games. True, broadcasters will be able to access the host signal in real time in their home studios via the new OBS Cloud service being provided by IOC sponsor Alibaba, but will that be enough? NBC alone had 2,000 production staff at the 2016 Games, working in the International Broadcast Center and the venues. Now what, especially since the host broadcast function really cannot be reduced?
Moreover, the reductions on entry for press and photographers, already facing difficult coverage restrictions from the IOC’s “playbook” requirements, will force some potentially devastating choices for National Olympic Committees, which are the entities responsible for assigning press and photo credentials from their country for the Games. No NOC will be shut out, but how will – for example – the U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee make massive cuts in a country which is primarily regional in its news coverage, spread among newspapers, magazines and online services.
Much more pressure will descend on the international news agencies which service multiple countries, such as the Associated Press, Reuters and Agence France Presse. But they will be asked to bring less staff as well.
The same pressure will be applied – sparingly? – to the thousands of technicians who come to the Games to install, operate and maintain the scoring, timing, scoreboard, security and many other systems that are part of the event. Will this make a difference in the eventual operations, or even the outcome of matches, games or races? Let’s hope not.
A whole host of folks who are always part of a multi-sports event such as an Olympic Games will be pushed away:
● Accompanying guests (spouses)? Out.
● Guest programs? Out.
● International Federation board members who are not officiating? Out.
● International Federation congresses and meetings? No.
● Observers for future Games or other mega-events? Out.
● Sponsor guests? Out.
The result is that much less will be known about how the Tokyo Games are run – both good and bad – than in recent editions, simply because less people who work in Olympic sport will attend. That is not a long-term positive for the Olympic Movement.
In case you were wondering about the IOC itself, Friday’s message specifically noted: “IOC Members as the ultimate decision-making body of the IOC are playing such an essential and operational role and will attend the Games.”
It’s completely unclear what the future impact of Japan’s actions against the virus, especially this one, will be for future Games. For decades, the IOC and its national partners worked diligently to build up the Games and have as many media, guests and side events as could be handled by the organizing committee in an effort to make the Olympic Games as important, as big and as desirable as possible.
But the Games is now, first and foremost, a television event. With the worldwide connectivity we have all learned to use during the pandemic, is an Olympic experience in your own country – or even a highly desirable resort location in a third country – just as meaningful, with evening interviews with athletes, coaches or experts on big screens during and/or after dinner. Would an Olympic sponsor prefer a Paris 2024 guest program that could include betting, in Monte Carlo, instead?
It will be up to the Paris 2024 organizers to decide how it views non-spectator attendance at the Games. Other organizing committees have pushed back against some of the ancillary events, guests and partying and the IOC has worked to smooth over these concerns, up to a point. Paris could decide to make a major tourism push and invite everyone to come, or could be more circumspect.
The lesson of Japan’s insistence on slimming the Games to its core to protect its citizens from Covid-19 exposure is that as the Games get close, the organizing committee is more and more in charge. After all, what is the IOC going to do? Take the Games away?
No. The IOC knows this, of course, and there are members who remember well this lesson from the Beijing organizers in 2008 … and perhaps again next year.
As IOC chief Thomas Bach said in January: “We just have to ask for patience, and understanding, and we are asking for this patience, you know, from the athletes, from the National Olympic Committees, the IFs, the Japanese people, the organizing committee; everybody.”
Everybody. Yes, everybody.
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