Opinion: Postpone the Tokyo Olympics to 2022

by Jean-Pierre Kiekens, Oxford educated development economist, former lecturer at the University of Brussels, and sailor.

This is just a short piece to express a very straightforward viewpoint, a viewpoint of reason.  There shouldn’t be any Olympics before it is safe, and it will not be safe before we have a vaccine.

While the coronavirus pandemic is growing, stock exchanges are plunging, many governments are taking draconian measures to deal with the pandemic, there is kind of a surreal approach when it comes to the Tokyo 2020 Olympics.

« The IOC remains fully committed to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, and with more than four months to go before the Games there is no need for any drastic decisions at this stage; and any speculation at this moment would be counter-productive. » stated the International Olympic Committee (IOC) just 2 days ago, on March 17.

« The IOC encourages all athletes to continue to prepare for the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 as best they can. »


The decision making at the IOC clearly intertwines numerous considerations: athletic, commercial, and public health.

Obviously, there are huge commercial interests at stake, for the Japanese economy, for sponsorship revenues, TV revenues, etc.

Survival of some federations, relying on revenues from the Olympics is also at stake.

Unless there is financial help, World Sailing is a likely organization to fall, as it already is borrowing against future Olympic revenues to operate.

The IOC ruled out not to have the event without spectators. This means the event will gather an anticipated 11,000 athletes and some 600,000 spectators.

How could the IOC ensure the safety of over half a million people, in a pandemic situation?

Yes, the pandemic will not be over in 4 months, even if some countries may be able to control their situation within that time frame.

It’s amazing how the IOC has not yet decided on the obvious: they will never be able to ensure the safety of athletes, staff, officials and spectators if the games are held in 2020.

What needs to be stressed is that it’s not just the Olympics per se that would be extremely dangerous, it’s the ongoing preparations by athletes and their support staff, and that is going on right now.

If the health and safety of the athletes, of the support staff, are prioritized, it’s impossible for training to continue as normal, for qualifications to continue as normal. Everything is changed.

Here is a recent sailing example: sailing is now prohibited in France and various other countries. Will the athletes be able to train for the games without hitting the water?

There are already numerous lockdowns, travel and other restrictions, making it impossible for most athletes to normally train, and this will get worse in the coming weeks.

The crisis will be even more acute in many low income countries, where recovery from the pandemic is expected to take more time than in industrialized countries.

Also, think about all the sports with contacts among athletes.

This is excessively dangerous at a time when social distancing is to be considered the most important priority to slow the spread of the pandemic.

Wrestling at the 2016 Olympics - How would IOC enforce social
distancing for this and other sports with close contacts?
How are you training for sports such as judo, karate, taekwondo, wrestling, etc. if social distancing, with a minimum distance of 6 feet / 2 meters, is required?

Remember, there is an exponentially growing number of infected people, who will transmit the disease to others, even if they are asymptomatic.

Team sports are highly vulnerable to spread the virus, especially those with physical contact: soccer, basketball, handball, etc.

With a sport such as sailing, there are transmission risks between team members on a same boat.

For 2020, 5 out of the 10 Olympic dinghy competitions are double-handed: 470 M, 470 F, 49er, 49er FX and Nacra 17.

Some 200 out of the 350 athletes would be sailing double-handed, with associated increased risk of infection.

As I discussed previously, there are numerous risks associated with air travel, using busses, public transportation, shared accommodation, etc. 

These risks will not evaporate within just a few months.

Let’s not forget, there is no immunity against this virus, and even those who have already got it may get reinfection, because of possible mutations.

Actually, there are already two clearly distinct strains to this virus that have been identified.

The Olympics are just games, let’s not forget this.

It’s high time to realize that, for everyone, the absolute priority should be to protect oneself,  to protect our relatives and all those in need.

If you have to travel for training, if you do a team sport, if your focus is not 100% on safety, you are taking unnecessary risks.

Keeping the uncertainty about whether to hold the Olympics in 2020 is irresponsible, in my opinion.

The current uncertainty, and the calls to continue training, to continue preparing, lead to further and avoidable infections among athletes, coaches and support staff, prior to the event.

We are talking about a pandemic that is growing fast. In most regions of the world, the risk of getting infected is growing by the day.

The IOC is, in my opinion, irresponsible to even suggest to athletes that these games could be held. Because it brings athletes to take risks, and to prepare for an event that most likely will not occur anyway.

When Should the Tokyo Games be Held?

It has now been over a month that most experts assert that there is a good likelihood there will be a vaccine, and that such vaccine would be available, for wide scale vaccination, only in 18 months.

Hopefully, it will be less than 18 months. It may also be longer.  We just don’t know. There are many hurdles, many uncertainties.

It’s however unlikely to be much less than 18 months, before there is widespread vaccination, including of all those attending the games as spectators.

Accordingly, the summer 2021, which is 16 months away, would be out of the question.

That leaves us with 2022 as the earliest date to have the Tokyo games. It's not certain the safety conditions will be met for the games to take place in 2022, but at least, there is a sigificant probability that it will be possible.

This is a public health issue. The only way to resume mass gatherings, normal international travel, will be when it will be safe.

As I wrote on February 20 regarding the 2020 Olympics, « it would be a good idea to announce as soon as possible their postponement, so that they don’t contribute to spread the virus. »

The wanderings of the IOC and various officials on this matter intertwine financial considerations, athletic considerations, and public health.

But we are living a pandemic situation, which is just at its very beginning in most countries. Public health should be the absolute priority.

Yes, there is hope, with some countries such as South Korea being much more successful than others at controlling the virus.


Results showing sharp decline of infection within a week of treatment
using a combination of hydroxychloroquine and an antibiotic.
Source: https://youtu.be/n4J8kydOvbc?t=869 (in French)
Some treatment may also become rapidly available, which could substantially improve the prognosis for those developing the disease.


Yet, this will not be enough to have safe Olympic games in just a few months, with thousands of athletes, thousands of officials and staff, and hundreds of thousands of spectators.

It’s high time for the IOC to urge athletes to focus 100% on their safety, on the safety of their relatives, and at helping others to face this considerable challenge.

The IOC should decide on the year 2022 to hold the Tokyo Olympics.

And if that is not possible, the games should be cancelled, that’s it.

It’s high time for the IOC to stop the confusion, to show leadership and to do the right thing.


How to keep informed? 

An excellent source of information is Dr John Campbell - watch his daily videos at https://www.youtube.com/user/Campbellteaching/videos

Previous articles by the author regarding the coronavirus pandemic:

Coronavirus: Time to Be Proactive - March 4 2020

Sailing and the Coronavirus - February 26 2020

Coronavirus: What is at Stake & How to Deal with It - February 20 2020

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