Three Lessons To Take From The Delayed Tokyo 2020 Games

What future host cities can learn from the postponement of the 2020 Summer Games

IOC Vice President John Coates (left) and Tokyo 2020 President Yoshiro Mori (right) addressing the media. photo via Tokyo 2020/Shugo Takemi

The Tokyo 2020 Games are the first Olympic Games to ever be delayed. Yes we have had the cancellations of previous games (1916, 1940 & 1944), but those were all due to the outbreak of World War 1 and World War 2. Others such as the 1980 Moscow Games and 1984 Los Angeles Games were also altered, as both games experienced plenty of boycotts from various countries. This was of course due to the political tension between the USA and the Soviet Union.

But these Tokyo 2020 games are unprecedented. Never has an Olympic Games had to be rescheduled from the original date and set to take place at a later date. Previously games were either completely scrapped or were altered slightly and continued forward. It is a tall task for the country of Japan to figure out how to not only budget and alter the games to fit next years schedule, but do so in a safe manner.

While the organisers will ultimately make the correct decisions moving forward, there are most certainly some mistakes that future hosts can learn from. While this situation is certainly unique, it would be unwise to think that something like this won’t happen again.

Get Out Ahead Of The Rumors

This is by far the simplest lesson to learn. We can’t necessarily blame the leadership of the Tokyo 2020 Games for taking the stoic stance they did. As rumors began to circulate about the possibility of the Summer Games being cancelled due to the outbreak of Covid-19, the organisers remained adamant that the games would go on as scheduled. They claimed they hadn’t even discussed it behind doors, which we knew to be false.

Former prime minister, Shinzo Abe drumming up excitement during the Olympic candidacy process. Photo via:

Perhaps it’s the thought that leadership should show unwavering resolve and put on a strong face. While coming from a good place, it allowed organizers to face criticism and possibly get a late start on delaying the games. We saw countless quotes from IOC officials, Tokyo organisers and politicians saying that the games were on. A unified message, but one that wasn’t so upfront and realistic.

Would it really have been so hard for leadership to say something a long these lines?

“ We are facing something that is unprecedented in modern times. The Olympic and Paralympic Games have never been threatened in this manner and there are many unknowns. As of now we plan to move ahead, but have begun making contingency planes to delay the games incase things continue to worsen.”

Perhaps the concerns for releasing such a statement were related to finances rather than showing a unified message. Maybe the worry was that sponsors would panic and look to bail on obligations. Who knows, but it seems like moving forward just being open to the public and the various organizations involved would protect you from public scrutiny.

Contract Stipulations

Discussion of contracts and fine print aren’t the sexiest of topics, but they are possibly the most important lesson to be learned for future organisers. They are in place to protect the host city, while making sure that obligations that the International Olympic and Paralympic Committees deem necessary are fulfilled.

Quickly following the announcement of the delayed games, reports about who would front the bill of the postponement surfaced. A huge range of estimates were given about the apparent added costs, with some saying as little as 800 million USD, and much more pessimistic estimates ballooning to around 6 billion. Of course we won’t know, but it is safe to say it won’t be a small bill.

Naturally, the two sides began to jostle for position in the media to control the narrative. This resulted in a controversial statement written on the IOC’s website that quoted former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, stating that Japan would cover the tab. Naturally it was taken down and since things have seemingly calmed down.

The IOC does have an emergency fund for the games, and pledged to give 800 million in total; IOC’s Vice President, John Coates however made it clear that a lot of the money from the IOC would be used to support struggling national Olympic Committees. While it is easy to say the IOC should do more to support the host city, Tokyo ultimately agreed when signing the contract to cover the costs.

Specifically section 68 states: “Unless expressly stipulated otherwise in this contract, all obligations of the city, the NOC and/or the OCOG pursuant to this contract, shall be at their expense.”

It is also obviously the Japanese government with a GDP of nearly 5 Trillion that has exponentially more resources than the IOC at the end of the day. The IOC has only made 4 billion in the last four-year Olympic cycle according to USA Today. So that does need to be taken into prospective of the actual financial capabilities of both sides.

While Japan’s relatively strong economy will allow these games to continue, other smaller countries may not have been so fortunate to afford a delay. So what they should look to do is find possible fail-safes through the various contracts that are made. It doesn’t just have to come from the IOC, but also from other outlets. For example NBC, Coca Cola and other major sponsors and partners that have a huge invested interest in the games continuing. The amounts put into this “emergency fund” doesn’t have to mind-blowingly large from any one sponsor, but enough that could help in case of a delay.

I’m not sure if this is actually feasible, as I don’t have information on the innerworkings of the games financial aspects. But it still seems like a valuable lesson to make sure all the force majeure stipulations are in place, in the event something as impactful as a pandemic occurs again.

Don’t Sell Off Infrastructure So Quickly

This is a tricky and complicated issue, similar to the previous lesson. On one hand it is obvious that plans and foresight is needed, but at the same time you run the risk of being constraint due to contractual obligations. With an event the size of the Olympic and Paralympic games, a lot of infrastructure needs to be built. Yes most of the media coverage tends to focus on those shiny new permanent stadiums, like the new Japan National Stadium in Shinjuku. However, most of the new facilities are actually temporary venues.

Out of the 43 venues that were set to be used, 10 of those were new temporary sites. That is actually more than the amount of new permanent pieces built (8). As you can surmise these temporary venues had plans to be retooled and sold off in a number of ways. To potential businesses, or used for other important public facility projects for the city.

Aerial shot of the Athletes’ Village in the Tokyo Bay area. and the condos that were sold off to applicants last year. Photo via:

This is substantial in a number of ways, as it really only leaves a few options for the delayed games. The land that is used for these temporary venues can no longer be sold and used for future projects, or the events have to be moved somewhere else.

The Athletes’ Village also faces a similar issue, however the end results aren’t nearly as cloudy. The 940 condos that make up the village were open to applications last summer. Thousands applied for the sleek new apartments. While you may think all those who bought them are the super wealthy who can afford the delay, you may be wrong.

Kyodo news reported the grievances of one man (39), who worries that this delay could affect his children's enrollment in school. The condos, while completed for use during the Olympic and Paralympic games, actually need to be renovated post Tokyo 2020 to fit the use of regular families. The buyers were set to move in 2023, but due to the games it easily be 2024.

It’s easy to be caught up in the macro results of the Tokyo 2020 games being delayed, but we can’t forget the countless personal impacts they have had too. It’s because of these personal impacts and the impact economically that future host cities must learn from Tokyo 2020. Even if it is a minor change that protects future organisers, it will be worth it to look back at how Japan handled the historic delay of the 2020 Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games.

If you wish to contact me you can reach me at

A writer living in Japan. Creating articles about the 2020 Tokyo Games. A regular contributor to Junkture Magazine.

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