Are the Tokyo Olympics actually going to happen?

February 19, 2021, 11:30 PM UTC

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Tokyo is determined to hold the 2020 Olympics and Paralympics this year, after the pandemic forced the city to postpone the Games last year, rescheduling them for July 23 through Aug. 8, 2021.

At the World Economic Forum in January, Japan Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide told delegates that the postponed Summer Games will serve as “proof of mankind’s victory over the virus.” Thing is, that triumph hasn’t happened yet.

Vaccine rollouts began in Japan on Feb. 17, with the government dispensing 40,000 Pfizer vaccines to frontline health workers. But experts cited by the Associated Press say Japan won’t reach herd immunity from vaccines before the Olympics start in July.

Meanwhile, many of the world’s most populous countries are still struggling to get daily case numbers under control, and vaccines aren’t expected to be widespread globally for at least another year. Even in Japan, several prefectures are under a state of emergency to combat a sudden wave of COVID-19.

On Feb. 2, Yoshihide extended the state of emergency to March 7, as hospitals struggled to cope even as cases declined. With the virus still far from contained, Japan’s citizens have lost their Olympic spirit.

According to a poll by Kyodo News, 80% of respondents want to see the 2020—now 2021—Olympics cancelled or rescheduled again. But Suga and the former head of Tokyo’s Olympic Committee, Yoshiro Mori (who stepped down in February following the outcry over his sexist comments about women talking too much) vowed to press on.

“No matter what the situation will be with the coronavirus, we will hold the Games,” Mori told lawmakers at a Feb. 2 meeting of Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party. Mori said the government should move on from discussing whether to hold the Games and instead discuss how to hold the Games.

Mori’s message echoed the sentiment expressed by International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach during a news conference in January. He told reporters, “We are not speculating whether the Games will take place. We are working on how the Games will take place.”

So what will the 2021 Olympics look like? Will there be quarantines?

On Feb. 3, the Tokyo Olympic Committee answered at least part of the “how” question when it issued a “playbook” to participating sports federation officials, outlining the pandemic restrictions that will be in place during the Games.

National Stadium, the main venue for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, as a visitor stands at the Shibuya Sky observation deck in Tokyo.

According to the rules, officials will be required to start monitoring their health and temperature two weeks before flying to Tokyo. The delegates will also need to show a negative COVID-19 test before boarding flights to Japan and, once they arrive, officials will be tested again and then shuttled to their accommodation but won’t have to quarantine.

The officials have to map out an itinerary for the first 14 days of their visit, when they will not be allowed to exit their accommodation unless visiting the Olympic Games venues on related business.  

While in Tokyo, officials must keep at least one meter apart from other people but are required to stay at least two meters away from athletes, who have their own “playbook” of rules to follow.

How will athletes be affected?

In December, the International Olympic Committee confirmed that athletes won’t be allowed to enter the Olympic Village more than five days prior to their first event and have to leave again within two days of their final competition.

Ordinarily, athletes can spend the entire duration of the Games at the Village—beyond their final event and up to the closing ceremony. Athletes are usually welcome to arrive early too: At the 2016 Olympics in Rio de Janeiro, some competitors arrived two weeks before the Games started.

Athletes usually arrive in a host country well ahead of time so that they can acclimatize before competing. For the Tokyo Olympics, it’s possible athletes will be able to travel to Japan more than five days before their meets; they just won’t be able to access the Olympic Village far in advance.

Much like Olympic officials, athletes will have to begin monitoring their health two weeks prior to arriving at the Olympic Village. But according to the Tokyo 2020 playbook for athletes, competitors at the Summer Games won’t be required to quarantine on arrival nor do they need to have been vaccinated in order to attend. Athletes have to present a negative COVID-19 test, taken up to 72 hours prior to their flight to Japan.

People walk past Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games advertising in Tokyo’s Shinjuku district.

Once in Japan, athletes are under broadly the same restrictions as Olympic officials. That includes sticking to a prepared schedule for the first 14 days, recording all close contact with others, remaining on-site, and wearing masks except when competing or training. Physical contact, like hugging, high fives, and handshakes, is discouraged.

Will there be spectators?

With the risks of Tokyo 2021 turning into a major superspreader event, the IOC has yet to determine whether international fans will be welcome at this year’s Olympics. Mori previously told reporters that a decision on the issue would be made by March at the latest.

Denying international fans would dampen the usually jubilant atmosphere of the Summer Games, but it wouldn’t be the first sports event to be held in front of an empty stadium. During 2020, various sports leagues experimented with virtual audiences, cardboard-cutout seat fillers, and canned cheers piped into empty stadiums through loudspeakers.

Banning fans would come at a financial cost to Tokyo. Tokyo expected to raise $800 million in ticket sales for the Olympics, according to the committee’s operating budget, although most of that revenue would come from domestic sales. Roughly 75% of the 6.8 million available tickets were bought by domestic fans last year, although the organizers were forced to issue refunds after the Games were delayed.

Having no international fans at the Games would also eliminate the bump in tourism spending Tokyo expected the Olympics to bring, although the Council on Foreign Relations reports that tourism isn’t always a significant revenue stream for host cities.

Perhaps most depressingly, whether spectators are local or from overseas, there will be no singing or chanting allowed when the Games commence. The playbook for officials advocates clapping instead.

How much will the Games cost?

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics is already the most expensive Summer Games on record, with a total budget of $15.4 billion—stealing the title from London’s 2012 Olympics, which cost $14.96 billion. Tokyo is also perhaps the most over-budget Summer Games, with the government originally predicting a cost of $7.3 billion when Tokyo made its host bid in 2013.

The costs have mounted despite Tokyo’s attempts to cut back on frills, such as welcome parties, the “look” of the Games, and the number of support staff attending. In October, the organizing committees said they had saved $280 million through such cuts, but necessary coronavirus countermeasures have added an extra $920 million to the expense sheet.

Most of the additional costs will be covered by the national and Tokyo-level governments. The IOC isn’t providing any additional funds beyond the $800 million it contributed to the Tokyo 2020 costs at the outset of the Olympic process.

However, in December the IOC said it will waive a 7.6% royalty fee it usually collects on Olympic sponsorship deals, as Tokyo seeks more sponsors to cover the costs of the delayed Olympics.

Are brands still sponsoring the Games?

According to the Tokyo committee’s latest budget, “local sponsorship,” meaning advertising, will be the city’s biggest earner, generating $3.3 billion in revenue. That’s more than twice the sponsorship earned by any previous Games.

But Reuters reports a number of Olympic sponsors are holding off on launching their Olympic advertising campaigns until they can better gauge the mood of the occasion.

With public opinion in Japan heavily against the Games, supporting the event doesn’t carry the same appeal for brands and, with fewer fans and no cheering allowed, the atmosphere will likely be less inspirational.

The Olympic Torch relay will be the first test of how advertisers try to frame this year’s subdued Olympics. The ritualistic ultramarathon that will see the Olympic flame pass between 10,000 torch bearers across Japan’s 27 prefectures over the course of four months is due to start on March 25.

Last year, Mori had called for crowds watching the relay to be “restrained,” but then the Tokyo Olympic Committee cancelled the run on March 24, 2020, two days before it was due to start, signaling that then Prime Minister Abe Shinzo finally had succumbed to reality and postponed the Games.

This year’s torch relay is also under scrutiny. In mid-February, Maruyama Tatsuya, the minister of Shimane prefecture, threatened to cancel the region’s participation in the relay and suggested the 10,000-person event wouldn’t contribute to an “environment where we can safely enjoy the Olympics.” Maruyama also said the Olympics should be cancelled “if the present conditions continue.”

Are there any changes to the Olympics’ broadcast and press coverage?

The nonprofit International Olympic Committee makes over 90% of its revenue from selling broadcast rights to the Olympic Games, which it tends to sell in multiyear chunks that cover both Winter and Summer Games. The IOC made over $4 billion from the sale of broadcast rights for the four-year period from 2017 through 2020.

But the delayed start of Tokyo 2020 has hindered the IOC’s cash flow and introduced the risk that some broadcasters might renegotiate their current contracts. Worse, a cancellation of the Games could result in broadcasters demanding refunds.

So broadcasts of this year’s Olympics will go ahead, and the press will be in attendance too, albeit in smaller numbers. According to the playbook for the press, social distancing requirements have reduced the capacity of Olympic venue press rooms by 50%.

Postgame interviews will likely look and feel different, too, with athletes and interviewers maintaining a mandatory two-meter distance.

With fewer fans, little—if any—tourism, less media, and socially distanced athletes, the Tokyo Olympics risks becoming a pertinent reminder of how very prevalent the pandemic still is, rather than a post-pandemic celebration of triumph over adversity.