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Coronavirus Threatens Olympics: 5 Options for  the 2020 Tokyo Games

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Bouldering qualifiers at the Toulouse Olympic Qualifying Event. The competition brought elite climbers from around the world seeking berths in the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. Now, due to the coronavirus, those games are in question.© IFSC/René Oberkirch

I wrote in my recap of the 2020 Pan-American Championships that a degree of coronavirus paranoia permeated the event—or at least the Olympic berths of Canada’s Alannah Yip and Team USA’s Colin Duffy. I wish I could say that the coronavirus’s speculative association with climbing ended with that event, but then I woke up the next day to a notification on my phone: The International Olympic Committee (IOC) released a formal statement on the virus and vaguely expressed “full commitment to the success of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.”

Alas, the coronavirus talk, as it pertains to competition climbing and the Olympics, is not going away anytime soon.

And it is worth noting that the coronavirus has already impacted climbing and its Olympic drive in a big way. A few weeks ago, the IFSC’s president, Marco Scolaris, said that the two World Cup competitions that were scheduled to take place in China in April would be cancelled or rescheduled. “The IFSC is studying viable solutions (i.e. postponement or rescheduling),” read an IFSC press release. And Asia’s Continental Championship that was scheduled to serve as an Olympic qualification event similar to the Pan-Ams was said to be pending a relocation or alternate solution as well. It’s not just competition climbing, either. According to our sister publication SNEWS, an outdoor industry trade publication, the virus is disrupting supply chains for outdoor brands.

So the entire climbing community finds itself in a state of flux and uncertainty about the future of competitions. But with all this talk about rescheduling, relocation, and “close collaboration and flexibility” between the Olympic athletes, national Olympic committees, and international sports federations, it is worth taking a look at the five most-likely outcomes of the ongoing coronavirus spread and the 2020 Olympics.

1. Continue with the Tokyo Olympics as planned

This is the option that the IOC executive board is banking on and hoping for at the moment. A joint task force was created last month, comprised of the city of Tokyo and the committee, Japan’s national government, and the World Health Organization. This task force is monitoring the virus’s global spread and a formal statement from the IOC said that “all athletes [should] continue to prepare for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020.” That is as much insight as we have on the current plans. For climbing specifically, at a recent press conference hosted by the IFSC at the Pan-American championships, the American Olympian climbers said this was exactly what they were doing—continuing with their training as planned, assuming the games will start on schedule this summer.

[Ed. Our plan here at is the same: We will continue to work under the assumption that the Olympics will proceed as scheduled, until we hear otherwise.]

2. Cancel the Tokyo Olympics

This would be the worst outcome, although obviously the world would have larger problems than sports cancellations if it comes to that. The 2020 games have been in the works for nearly a decade. History suggests that the games will not be cancelled, as that has only happened in the past during global wars. In fact, because all-out cancellation would be such a drastic and unprecedented measure, people would probably not be considering it as a possibility if it had not been for recent statements by IOC executive Dick Pound. Pound said that the IOC would not decide the “fate” of the games until May, but he did use the word “cancellation” when mentioning possibilities—thus tossing the idea of the games being nixed into public discourse. Worse, the idea seems to be gaining steam outside of the IOC’s executive inner-circle. Just today the Japan Para Sports Association canceled a Paralympic wheelchair rugby match that was slated to be a “Tokyo Olympic test event.” And, of course, qualification events around the world, those IFSC Asia Continental Championships among them, have been impacted too.

3. Reschedule the Tokyo Olympics

Estimates put the total cost of Tokyo’s Olympic preparations at $25 billion. That is three times the amount that was estimated when Tokyo was selected as the host city eight years ago. Much of that money has gone to funding the construction of new venues and facilities for the athletes’ village, but there has also been an ongoing marketing push and expensive alterations to the city’s infrastructure. It would likely hurt Japan’s economy if all this massive spending was for nothing.

“If the Olympics are canceled, hotel traffic is going to be down, business traffic is going to be down, let alone retail sales and government revenue,” Andrew Zimbalist, an economics professor at Smith College in Massachusetts, told The Japan Times. “The Japanese economy is limping along and has needed a boost from the Olympics.”

For that reason, could the games be held after the summer? That would allow more time for the medical community to study the virus’s spread—and work towards a vaccine—before fans gather for what will unquestionably be a massive global public gathering. Recently Seiko Hashimoto, Japan’s Olympics minister, admitted there is a possibility that the games could be “deferred” until the winter of 2020, giving credence to the idea of a rescheduling. According to the Associated Press, she said “The IOC has the right to cancel the games only if they are not held during 2020. This can be interpreted to mean the games can be postponed as long as they are held during the calendar year.” Exploiting what sounds like a loop hole, this could lead to a Summer Olympics being held in December. The IOC dismissed the idea. “We are going to have the games on the 24th of July,” said spokesman Mark Adams.

4. Relocate the Olympics

At the time of this writing, Japan ranks fifth on the list of countries with the most coronavirus cases (China is first, followed by South Korea, Iran, and Italy). The United Kingdom, in contrast, ranks 13th. Why do I mention the UK? Because recently a mayoral candidate in London, Shaun Bailey, said, “I urge the Olympic Committee to seriously consider how London could stand ready to host the Olympics should the need arise.” This notion was also endorsed by Sadiq Khan, the current mayor of London. Such a sudden country shift in the Olympics’ hosting would create a rift between Tokyo and London. Tokyo’s governor, Yurilo Koike, already criticized Bailey’s comments as being “inappropriate.” But since London hosted the Olympics in 2012—not that long ago in the scheme of things—that city would still have the infrastructure in place to accommodate the massive event. To date, the IOC has not responded to the suggestion directly. Instead, they’ve stressed that the games will take place in Tokyo.

5. Hold the Olympics without spectators

The most pressing issue going forward is not really the Olympics itself, but the gathering of the thousands and thousands of global spectators at a time when a virus is very contagious and rapidly spreading. In other words, the Olympics just happen to be the unlucky backdrop. So if the real problem is the mass of spectators rather than the athletic events—why not have the athletic events without spectators? With Internet livestreaming more prevalent than ever before, it would still be possible to present the Olympic events to a substantial global audience. And before you say this idea is ridiculous, I’ll point out that a mixed martial arts organization that had scheduled an event in Singapore last month made a decision to hold the bouts with “no fans in attendance.” The organization’s CEO said, “The Singapore Indoor Stadium will not be open to the general public, but the event will proceed behind closed doors as scheduled live on all TV and digital platforms across 150+ countries around the world.” Similarly, the this year’s Tokyo Marathon went forward with only elite runners. The event had expected 38,000 participants, but limited it to only the 200 competitive athletes. Granted, there is a difference between a single mixed martial arts card or marathon and a multi-week Olympics, but these event proved that organizations are figuring out ways to move forward with competitions while mitigating the risk.

How do you think the Olympic Committee should handle the coronavirus? Let us know in the comments section below. Stay tuned to for any major updates about the Olympics’ schedule, and check out Olympic Climbing 101 for a full rundown of how climbing in the Tokyo Olympics will work.

John Burgman is the author of High Drama: The Rise, Fall, and Rebirth of American Competition Climbing, which chronicles the history of American competition climbing.