The 2020 Olympics…No Matter What
By: Alec Fante
The monumental and disruptive force of the COVID-19 virus pandemic tore through the world this year disrupting everything in its wake, including the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympic Games. In an unprecedented move last March, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced the postponement of the 2020 Summer Olympic Games. Just weeks ago, amid fans, athletes, and apparently the IOC becoming restless, IOC Vice President John Coates announced that the games will take place next year, “…with or without Covid.” While a return to normalcy by next summer is certainly the goal, there are several financial, business, safety, and legal implications in pushing forward with a worldwide event before it is truly known whether or not the virus will be under control by then.
The modern Olympics, first held in Athens in 1896, have only been cancelled 3 times in the past during the World Wars but never delayed for a whole year.When the games were postponed, potential legal consequences included sponsorship agreements, ticket sales, reservations, and the rights of the athletes who had already qualified for this event, perhaps training for literally their entire lives. While many of these legal issues remain to be debated, the fact is that the IOC actually had an insurance policy in place to protect against cancellation. The question now is: does the policy ensure coverage for postponement costs to ensure everything stays in place until next year? Along with the IOC, and feeling pressure from many athletes, Tokyo officials agree that the Games must go on “at any cost.” Besides the monetary cost, however, there is an indeterminable cost of proceeding when it comes to health and safety, which is somewhat of a gray area even on the existing insurance policies taken out by the IOC.
IOC president Thomas Bach admits that he has more questions than answers when it comes to safety amidst an ongoing pandemic. Vaccines, rapid testing, and the progression of the virus remain in question. Bach admits, “We don’t know how the world looks like tomorrow, so how can you expect us to know how the world looks in 320 days from today?” Olympic Minister Seiko Hashimoto, in agreement with Bach and Coates, said about the Olympic Games, “I feel we have to hold them, no matter what.” From a legal and safety standpoint it is the qualification “no matter what” that is the problem with Tokyo’s ambitious Olympic plans. The Olympics are already an extreme risk due to the fact that participants and fans come from all over the world and as such are at risk to not only contract COVID-19 but to take it back home with them, which again means literally all over the world.
The Olympics, which are now the world’s biggest, most complex, and most expensive sporting event, have always entailed a risk, mostly financial. Costs associated with the 2020 Olympics are estimated to be over $28 billion. While disease outbreaks such as flu, measles, norovirus, and Zika have threatened the Olympic Games before, none have posed as severe of a threat as COVID-19. A pandemic, unlike earlier outbreaks, affects the entire world and is not just a local concern. Even if Japan has successfully contained and vaccinated by next summer, other countries may not have. Other problems include interference with training, qualifying, and travel. Legal questions arise as to the value of marketing and broadcast partners who are heavily invested in investments spanning years. In this new scenario, where pandemics are growing in frequency, cities and fans are losing enthusiasm for the treasured event.
Insurance coverage during a pandemic is a tangled legal issue. Insurers have always offered restricted coverage for epidemics or pandemics for an increased premium but up until now most companies did not buy it. The IOC actually does make a practice of taking out approximately $800 million of protection for each of the Summer Games which covers most of the $1 billion investment it makes in each host city. The cost of the policy is about $24 million but it is unclear if it covers the one year postponement forced by the COVID-19 pandemic. While postponement certainly has financial disadvantages, a complete cancellation would mean a much heavier price, mostly on the host nation not to mention the toll cancellation would take on the athletes many of whom could lose out on their Olympic chance. It is an unprecedented move to delay, so while the games are not technically cancelled at this point, it remains a legal issue whether the policy covers costs associated with the one year postponement.
It appears the long tradition of athletic competition first recorded as far back as 776 BC and formalized in 1896 with the formation of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) will again find a way to continue. The Tokyo 2020 Olympics, now scheduled for next summer, will mark the first Games in history ever to be delayed to the following year. While the cost of the one year postponement and exactly who is responsible for paying it is not clear, estimates are in the billions of dollars.
The Tokyo Olympics are the most expensive in history. The University of Oxford, in a study set to be published this month, examines Tokyo’s expenditure in particular and the rising Olympic costs since 1960 in general. Despite the insurances taken out on the Olympic Games to protect against cancellation, Oxford economist Flyvbjerg explains why this trend cannot continue. He insists “[t]he Olympics offer the highest level of risk a city can take on…No city will want to do this because it’s just too expensive…”  It is admittedly difficult to gain reliable information about the real costs, cost overruns, and cost risks of the Olympic Games. With increasing security risks and pandemic likelihood it remains to be seen what an insurer’s obligations will be to protect their client, for example the IOC, from unknown future pandemics causing unimaginable costs and delays moving forward.
It may very well be that an international competition such as the Olympics has become too costly and risky. Insurance companies need to reevaluate the existing policies and clarify the gray areas because disruptions of this magnitude may not be such a rare event going forward. Despite the risk, it seems everyone involved hopes for the Games to take place next summer “no matter what” because from where they stand, if that doesn’t happen then everyone ends up a loser; both sporting and financial.
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