What should Tokyo 2020 do about audiences?

A difficult decision looming.

©Getty Images

In the past few weeks, we’ve been seeing more and more positive news about potential Covid-19 vaccine candidates. As of August 8th, there are 7 different candidates in phase three of clinical trials; meaning large scale testing. Russia announced in late July that they would push to have their vaccine approved by late August, and possibly begin mass production in September. While this decision is shrouded in secrecy and skepticism, it is progress. Dr. Fauci, Director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has been rather pessimistic when it comes the speed of vaccines, but has also recently stated he believes by early 2021 we will have vaccines available. While this is certainly great news, it’s far from any confirmation that the Tokyo 2020 Games are in the clear.

We know that just because a vaccine is approved and declared to be effective, doesn’t mean the manufacturing will be able to keep up with the demand. Since this has become a truly global pandemic, many countries will be vying for large quantities of the vaccine. Japan already has a deal with Pfizer Inc. in place, that would supply enough doses for 60 000 000 of its citizens. That’s enough to cover roughly 50% of Japan’s total population. But how quickly they will be able to administer all of these doses is something that is also merely speculative at this point, and we have no way of knowing a true time frame.

What we do have a clear timetable on is next year’s Summer Games. The Olympic opening ceremony is set to begin Friday, July 23rd 2021, and the Paralympics roughly a month later on August 24th. It has been made clear by various Olympic Committee members that this is a one shot, and there will be no further postponement. Knowing this fact, and the chances that Covid-19 will most likely be around in some form, the host nation of Japan has some serious thinking to do. With all the unknown factors, what should the Tokyo organisers do about fans and audiences?

Audience Members

We see many professional sports leagues returning to play without crowds in attendance. The NBA, MLB and various European Football leagues have all resumed play in some form. It seems like it was a pretty straight forward decision for such leagues. While the live gate produces millions of dollars, it is the broadcasting, advertisement and merchandise that still make up a majority of the income produced. As long as there is a product available on the screen, these forms of revenue can continue.

Photo via: www.voanews.com

However, the Olympic and Paralympic Games are different in some key aspects. First of all the importance of the crowds. While it’s true that the games do also make a lot of their money via broadcasting rights — with the most lucrative being a billion dollar contract with NBC — the fans visiting from abroad provide other forms of economic stimulus other than simply their tickets. Instead of merely locals attending home games, a large portion of the crowds are from those abroad, and Japan’s tourist industry was counting on this to boost revenue. It was expected that a lot of tourists at the games would make some trips to places like Kyoto and Osaka during the games, which would require using transportation via shinkansen or plane and subsequently hotels.

The crowds for the games are not solely a financial symbol however. While some may find it pretentious when IOC members say that the games are more about unity than money, they actually aren’t being completely disingenuous. Unlike most live sporting events, the games are something unique, as they don’t resemble a homogenous mass of fans all wearing the same colours. Part of the appeal of the Olympic Games opposed to other major sporting events is the international conglomeration of sporting fans. At one moment you could be talking to someone from Chile and the next meet someone from Kazakhstan.

So what are the options? There are realistically three clear cut directions. All with obvious benefits and drawbacks. As of right now, all are currently on the table, but we will quickly learn which way the organisers are leaning as the one-year countdown continues.

Have The Crowds As “Usual”

Of course, this has many stipulations that would need to be fulfilled for this to even be a viable option. The reasons for this seem obvious. According to the last several Summer Games, a bump in total percentage of tourists can be expected. Brazil saw 2016 jump by 5% from the previous years due to the games. While this seems minimal, you have to account that this stimulus is from a relatively short event spanning several weeks.

Of course due to the Covid-19, tourism in Japan, like the rest of the world has halted completely. This severe dip in international travel will undoubtedly extend into next year. That isn’t really a question at this point. The real conundrum is if the Games can act as a kick starter to entice people to take risks that they normally wouldn’t. If it can attract a decent amount of international visitors, and it is reported that it was reasonably safe, it could convince people who are hesitant to travel to make that trip to Japan they’ve always wanted.

If they were to allow audience members as “usual”, this wouldn’t resemble any previous games. There would have to be screening of some kind. Whether this be temperatures taken prior to the games or a mandatory vaccination, the organisers need to implement a strategic plan. It’s most likely that indoor facilities won’t operate at full capacity and once potentially crowded areas would be closed off.

Look it’s clearly not the safest of options if we are to look at it objectively at the moment. I don’t think anyone would argue that point, but there are many benefits that are present. The government along with the organisers will have to weigh the pros and cons.

Only Japanese Nationals

Japan currently has extremely limited access to the country by foreigners, obviously trying to reduce the spread of the virus. Despite this they are currently trying to promote domestic tourism. The controversial “Go To Travel Campaign” started last month, which is trying to get people to travel within the country to fill in the void of international tourists. Pretty much the government will subsidise parts of your trip within Japan in attempt to help shop owners, hotels and other businesses that have been so heavily impacted. This suggests that the government isn’t looking to suppress movement of it’s own citizens.

© Martin Bureau/AFP/Getty Images

Allowing only Japanese nations and permanent residents is an alternative that has been floating around since the announcement of the cancellation of the games. It makes sense in a lot of ways, as the games for the athletes and on television would still have a similar feel with crowd noise and cheering. This would also mean the organisers wouldn’t have to refund the 4 million tickets they already sold for the Olympic Games and the 600 000 Paralympic tickets.

The negatives are much the same for allowing regular audiences, but some other consequences could result from the decision. What it could entail is a homefield advantage of sorts. Of course, the Japanese wouldn’t sabotage other nations’ athletes in the pursuit of victory, but the lack of fan support can definitely deflate competitors. IOC members have also stated that the games would “miss the mark” in a sense, since the ideal games brings various nations of fans together.

Hold The Games Behind Closed Doors

This is definitely the least ideal of outcomes for those in charge. From a financial and an atmospheric standpoint, it definitely will leave a sour taste in some people’s mouths. This would at the very least mean that the nearly 5 million Olympic and Paralympic tickets that were set to be sold internationally will never hit the market. At an average price of 8000 yen (roughly 75$ USD), that leaves nearly $375 million, on the table. That isn’t including the aforementioned 5 million tickets already sold domestically.

Setting aside the topic of money, the Olympic and Paralympic spirit would ultimately be compromised if this route is chosen. The international event draws in around 15 000 athletes from roughly 200 nations and acts as a sign of international unity. The games have been a stage for some of the most memorable moments in sporting history, that is shared globally. Frankly empty stands would be somewhat depressing for both the athletes and viewers at home; a solid reminder of what Covid-19 has done, and certainly not the message of hope the organisers want.

NBA virtual crowds via Zoom. ©Mike Kim

While you can go on and on about the spirit of the games being negatively affected, it is undeniable this is the safest and most easily executed decision. Taking a page out of the NBA, the games could form a bubble of sorts, limiting access to and from the Olympic/Paralympic Village located in the Tokyo Bay area. Mass testing could be administered to all athletes, press members and officials, while limiting exposure to regular citizens. In the tech savvy country of Japan, they could also implement the virtual crowds via Zoom. Coupled with some artificial crowd noise when appropriate and good camera work, the television product can most certainly be manipulated.

So these are realistically the only options that are available, and it will be made clear soon enough which direction is most appropriate. The landscape of the sporting world is just as messy as any, and we shouldn’t expect that to change anytime soon. But with Yoshiro Mori, Tokyo Olympic Organizing Comittee President so keen on getting the job done, we should look optimistically at the possibility of hosting a safe games.

If you wish to contact me, you can reach me at: Shotarohmoore@hotmail.com

A writer living in Japan. Creating articles about the 2020 Tokyo Games. A regular contributor to Junkture Magazine. https://www.junkturemagazine.com

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