On January 21st The Times, a British tabloid announced that the Japanese government has given up on the 2020 Olympic Games. The Times reported that once Japan’s Olympic delegation had found a way to limit the fallout, they would announce the cancellation. Before the end of the day, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the local organizers called this “categorically untrue.” Unfortunately it was too late; what was taboo was now on every tongue. In the following days, the news needed to be refuted by publicists and spokespeople across the world with good reason. The Olympic Games have been cancelled only three times in history: in 1916 for World War I, and again in 1940 and 1944 for World War II. To be clear, it is the position of the IOC that the Tokyo Games will begin in five months, on July 24th. But, if the 2020 games are cancelled, it will only be the fourth to have such a fate out of the 32 scheduled games since 1896. It is because they are so regular that the games are a powerful symbol of global unity. They have only ever been abandoned for the largest and most encompassing global conflicts — only the most concerted periods of division have disrupted the spirit of unity embodied by the games.
As of December 2020, the budget for the Tokyo Games had reached over fifteen billion dollars and most, if not all, of that cost is unrecoverable.
If the games are cancelled, there will be real consequences for athletes and the Olympics themselves. Just because the latest report from The Times seems to be false does not mean that the games are not in danger of cancellation. By July, it will have been a full year since the originally-scheduled beginning. What is normally the Olympics’ greatest strength, its consistency, is turned on its head when the unthinkable does happen. As of December 2020, the budget for the Tokyo Games had reached over fifteen billion dollars and most, if not all, of that cost is unrecoverable. Much of the infrastructure that the Olympics require has niche uses; 60,000 seat arenas and velodromes are emblematic of this waste. Perhaps within the context of the Olympic Games, the cost is acceptable — a big show requires a big price tag — but the context of a cancellation is an entirely different story.
Should the Olympics meet an untimely demise, it will be a poignant metaphor for the past year. Canadians from St. John to Victoria are being told to “stay strong” and “do more” even with vaccinations slowly ramping up, COVID-19 seems just as capable of disrupting people’s lives and dreams. Additionally, the suggestion of boycotting the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing over the mistreatment of Uighurs, a minority group in western China, has been raised and dismissed by the Canadian Olympic Committee. But a boycott is not a cancellation and a humanitarian crisis is not a pandemic. Right now, the Canadian Olympic Committee has its focus on Tokyo and what will happen to Canadian athletes.
If the Olympics are cancelled there is no do-over; athletes who qualified, or had yet to qualify, can only start over in hopes of going to Paris three years from now
There is no way to describe the difficulty of qualifying for the Olympics without being trite, or worse, obtuse. If the Olympics are cancelled there is no do-over; athletes who qualified, or had yet to qualify, can only start over in hopes of going to Paris three years from now. Take the Women’s Artistic Gymnastics individual all-around competition, a mouthful, and possibly the most prestigious prize in elite competitive gymnastics. In 2016 thirteen of the 24 athletes in the all-around were twenty years old or younger, only three were older than 24, and all three medalists were 22 or younger. With a minimum age of sixteen to compete, most athletes can realistically try and qualify for one, maybe two Olympic Games. Athletes who can still qualify for Tokyo will be washed by Paris. Gymnastics has one of the most abrupt age drop-offs, but it is true to some degree for most events. Rules also get in the way. The Olympic Soccer tournament only allows three players over the age of 23 to compete for each team; those Olympic hopefuls could be forced out by the book.
Athletes are not the only ones at risk of missing their chance. Tokyo was set to host new events such as rock climbing, skateboarding, surfing, and baseball and softball. While climbing, skating, and surfing are popular globally and strong candidates to return in 2024, a cancelled 2020 Olympics could kill any chance of a consistent comeback for baseball and softball. Both were included because of their huge popularity in Japan; France on the other hand, is not notable for its strong baseball tradition. Even the 2028 Olympics, set for Los Angeles, could be a dud for America’s national pastime. The best baseball players will be unable to compete unless the IOC and Major League Baseball (MLB) can cooperate on letting players leave their teams during the middle of MLB’s summertime season.Good will between the organizations has been uncommon and seems unlikely in the future. Without MLB stars driving interest, baseball could be left out again.
And so if the possibility of a cancelled Olympics embodies the shared experience of 2020, shattered expectations and isolation, maybe baseball embodies the personal experience of 2020. Swept up in a halting disaster exacerbated by fake news, baseball missed a chance for a statement year. The world will move on, the Olympics will return and COVID-19will end, maybe even this year. But opportunities lost in 2020 will stay there. Whether it inspires some kind of change (maybe the IOC and MLB will get along in 2028!) remains to be seen.