COVID-19 and Tokyo 2020: The global order through the prism of sports

Özgehan Şenyuva & Emir Güney write: The sports world is globally connected and is part of the complex, interdependent system that was created following the Cold War. Nothing illustrates the global scale of sports involvement and related socioeconomic and culture networks than Mega Sporting Events (MSEs), namely the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup. The COVID-19 pandemic has already threatened the very existence of MSEs, and most likely it will change their nature and structure from now on.

Özgehan Şenyuva & Emir Güney

The ongoing coronavirus pandemic is deeply affecting all aspects of life, and sports events are not immune to this virus. As a matter of fact, we can trace how COVID-19 is affecting the global order through the prism of sports. While Europe is discussing whether the Champions League match played in Milano on February 19th between Atalanta and Valencia was a biological bomb, as the mayor of Bergamo argued, some fans in Turkey are furious with Galatasaray goalkeeper Fernando Muslera from Uruguay because he criticized Turkish state policies regarding the virus on the ESPN Mexico. 

The sports world is globally connected and is part of the complex, interdependent system that was created following the Cold War. Nothing illustrates the global scale of sports involvement and related socioeconomic and culture networks than Mega Sporting Events (MSEs), namely the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup. The COVID-19 pandemic has already threatened the very existence of MSEs, and most likely it will change their nature and structure from now on — particularly because the 2020 Olympics was due to take place in Tokyo, Japan in the summer.

On March 24, following the advice of the World Health Organisation (WHO) and after considering the mounting pressure by the national Olympic committees and players’ unions to postpone the games, the IOC and the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee together decided to push the calendar for the Games back to the summer of 2021. This is a historic moment in the history of sports. Let us analyze this decision, its background and its possible implications.

COVID-19 stops life — and sports too

Throughout the history of the Olympic Games, there were only three cancellations due to extraordinary circumstances. The Games had to be cancelled in 1916 due to World War I, and in 1940 and 1944 due to World War II. Tokyo 2020 became the fourth case of disruption. Although it has not been cancelled altogether, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee together decided to postpone the Games for one year.

The last few weeks have been highly challenging for the governing bodies of all types of sports organizations. COVID-19’s rapid spread all over the world has brought all the international competitions to a halt, which was quickly followed by most of the national leagues’ decisions to postpone their schedules.

Although a few of the sports federations, like the Turkish Football Federation, resisted this trend initially, they also yielded to the dangerous consequences eventually. Like many governing bodies in the modern world, the IOC had to consider the socioeconomic and political impacts of the decisions before blowing the final whistle. Financial considerations usually sit at the top of this process, only to be surpassed by a more important factor: health and safety.

The IOC’s tough decision and its background

First and foremost, the reason for this delay was the health risks that it may have brought if the Games were to take place in July 2020. The opposition to postponing the event argued that there was still a lot of time until the start of the games, and that the situation would most probably be controlled by then. But with so many unknowns about COVID-19, there was no guarantee of time working in favor of the Olympics.

What IOC initially tried to do was postpone any decision regarding the fate of the games as long as they could. They were trying to see how the situation would evolve and then decide more accurately. This approach had a major flaw.

In such a situation, the IOC had to tell all the athletes that had qualified to continue their training. However, how and where these athletes would train was extremely problematic and even risky. Not every Olympic athlete enjoys the wealth of global superstars, who have their own training facilities, islands, and so on. In a world whose global motto right now is #StayAtHome, asking the athletes to continue training outside or in a gym with many other athletes would be risking their lives and their families’ lives, and also risk spreading the virus further.

Another major health issue arose from the uncompleted Olympic qualifications. There are still many competitions to be completed in many different kinds of sports in order to determine which athletes will compete in Tokyo. This also created a big question of how to organise these events, which would bring together athletes from all around the world in the times of corona. In addition to the health concerns, there was also the harsh reality of closed borders, travel restrictions and required quarantine periods. It is practically impossible to hold qualifications at the moment. Any further delay would mean the qualifications taking place right before the Olympics, which would create a whole list of problems, especially regarding the athletes’ physical and mental well-being.

The national Olympic committees were well aware of these two challenges and they were also under pressure from their own athletes. The IOC, playing for time, received backlash. Two very important countries, Canada and Australia, which are both big medal contenders and which both have a high number of athletes that qualified, announced on March 23 that they will not send athletes to the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo if it takes place on the original dates due to the risks associated with the coronavirus outbreak. It was a matter of time before more athletes and national committees would follow suit.

Money talks: The financial dimension

The economic impact of changing the dates of the Olympic Games is huge. According to the 2019 version of the Olympic Marketing Fact File, 73% of total revenue between 2013 and 2016 came from the broadcasting rights of the Olympic Games, and the total revenue generated by selling broadcasting rights during this period was around $4 billion. This is not an amount that can be easily given up without a second thought. Considering that 90% of this amount goes to international sports federations worldwide in order to support their budgets for the next Olympic cycle, it will also be detrimental for these federations who heavily rely on these funds.

Another aspect of the financial impact is the anticipated losses of the Tokyo Organising Committee, which amounts up to $840 million when the cancellation of accomodation and lost possible ticketing and merchandising income from the Games are taken into account.

A full calendar in 2021: No available dates

A negative outcome of COVID-19 for sports is the uncertainty in terms of the calendar of events. Although not as important as the health and economic factors, there is the issue of the international sporting calendar. Since almost all international sport events begin to organise their activities years before the event, it is hard to move the dates of these events even a few days, let alone moving a month-long multi-sport global event such as the Olympics. After all the dust settles, there will be a challenge to find suitable dates for Tokyo 2021. The calendar for the most popular and most viewed sport around the world, football, should give an idea about how the calendar is becoming tight. 

So far, national football associations in Europe have all stopped their national leagues and it remains uncertain when they will resume. UEFA postponed Euro 2020 until the summer of 2021, proposing new dates of June 11 to July 11. The Euro 2020 playoffs, due to be played in March 2020, will now take place in the June 2020 international break. The 2020 Copa America is to move to 2021 to give South American players based in Europe the opportunity to finish their league campaigns. The UEFA Women’s Champions League Final, the UEFA Europa League Final, and the UEFA Champions League Final were all scheduled for May 2020, and have been postponed to a later date. UEFA announced all Champions League and Europa League fixtures that were scheduled to start the week of March 16 were postponed, as well as the quarter-final draws for both competitions.

The period between summer 2020 and summer 2021 will be packed with international and national sporting events. Whether things will be treated as back to business as usual or whether we witness certain new paradigms post-Corona (if such a thing exists) is yet to be seen. With national reflexes tending towards stronger borders and limited mobility in order to tackle the crisis, and with people growing cautious of international travel and becoming more cautious in social interactions, we may as well witness a completely new environment for Mega Sporting Events: more people staying at home, and less people travelling or coming together to watch competitions. The priority at the moment, however, remains to survive the pandemic and be able to restore societies from this major disruption and trauma. Life will go on, but how it will look is yet to be seen.


Özgehan Şenyuva, Middle East Technical University, International Relations Emir Güney, Kadir Has University, Sports Studies Center