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Postponement of 2020 Tokyo Olympics | Richard Pound

Monday, March 30, 2020 @ 8:51 AM | By Richard Pound


Richard Pound %>
Richard Pound
Prior to the International Olympic Committee’s recent decision to postpone the 2020 Games, scheduled to begin on July 24, the regular cycle of the modern Olympic Games has been interrupted only three times, all the result of cancellations caused by 20th century wars. There has never been a postponement, an intermediate alternative lying between persisting with an original schedule and outright cancellation.

The IOC found itself between the proverbial rock and a hard place regarding Tokyo. Its contractual arrangement with Tokyo permitted it to unilaterally cancel the Games, should inter alia, there be a state of war or serious concerns about the safety of participants. On the basis of the current COVID-19 virus pandemic identified by the World Health Organization, there was clearly a justifiable safety concern that could have been invoked by the IOC had it decided to cancel the Games (the IOC recently announcement the games will now take place from July 23 to August 8 of 2021).

As lawyers know, acting within one’s legal rights may not always produce the best or most reasonable outcome in the particular circumstances. Cancellation of the Tokyo Games would have dashed the hopes and dreams of athletes from 206 countries, many of them unlikely to win another chance four years later. In addition, the significant investment of Japan in Games-related infrastructure would have been sacrificed, without return on that investment. Ticket revenues, measured in hundreds of millions of dollars, would have to be refunded. Jobs would be lost. Some risks insured against cancellation might be mitigated. National pride and prestige would suffer.

Postponement is a different matter. There is no unilateral right to postpone — that measure requires agreement, in this case, between the IOC and the Japanese authorities. The IOC cannot dictate such agreement. This was a delicate matter, especially since the signs in Japan were indicating that COVID-19 was coming under control in Japan and might be sufficiently controlled by July 24 (the original date for the Games to begin) to make Japan relatively safe as a destination. The Japanese authorities might, therefore, wish to continue with the original dates. By the end of the third week in March, however, the WHO-provided COVID-19 statistics regrettably demonstrated that the pandemic was spreading at an increasing rate, such that even if Japan itself might be in a position to host the Games, the rest of the world would not likely be fit to travel to Japan. Measures imposed around the world designed to reduce the spread of the virus will seriously and adversely impact athlete preparation for the competitions.

The Japanese authorities, therefore agreed with the IOC that postponement was the best solution, a decision widely approved by athletes and sports authorities alike, as well as media and governmental authorities around the world.

Now begins the immense challenge to put together all the pieces of the most complex international peaceful event in the world on a short timeline. Those engaged in responding to the challenge will soon realize it is no coincidence that Games are awarded seven years before they are held! Competition and training facilities will have to be committed, security arrangements redesigned and committed, an Olympic Village secured, visitor and employee accommodations be put in place, press and broadcasting facilities obtained, athlete and spectator transportation engaged, existing tickets validated or replaced, thousands of existing contractual arrangements renegotiated and much, much more.

International sport arrangements are already in place for next year, in the context of a sport schedule that did not contemplate Olympic Games during 2021. There will undoubtedly be complications and the need to move some of the scheduled events, with the attendant legal issues, but the Olympic Games are so important that there will likely be an extraordinary amount of goodwill exhibited in the search for acceptable solutions.

There will be a significant need for members of the legal profession in Japan and elsewhere to assist with unwinding many of the existing arrangements as well as the fast-track design and drafting of the new paradigm. This will be a time when lawyers who are deal-makers will (as usual) outshine the deal-breakers.

Richard Pound is of counsel with Stikeman Elliott LLP. The views expressed are those of the author and not his employer.

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