Who Could Cancel the Tokyo Olympics?

Bizar Male

The intensity of the standoff between International Olympic Committee officials and the Japanese public over whether this summer’s Tokyo Games should go on as planned was clear recently when IOC member Dick Pound told a magazine that the event would take place even if Prime Minister

Yoshihide Suga

asked that it be canceled.

“Mr. Pound’s remarks are simply crazy,” former Prime Minister

Yukio Hatoyama

shot back on Twitter. “He should quit mocking the 80% of Japanese that don’t want the Olympics to go ahead.”

The sharp exchange raises a question: Who gets to decide whether this giant and complex global event will proceed despite a wall of pandemic-related obstacles?

The IOC and the Tokyo organizing committee insist that the Olympics are a go. In response to recent questions from The Wall Street Journal, the IOC says it has entered into the “operational delivery” phase of the Olympics and that “it has become clearer than ever that these Games will be safe for everyone participating and the Japanese people.”

However, the Japanese government could move to cancel or postpone the Games if public pressure to do so remains high. Japan itself isn’t a party to the original host-city agreement that underpins the Games, and the country could pull legislative or immigration levers to block the event. Doing so could ignite a court battle that would be damaging to the image of the IOC and the Olympics. 

With just more than six weeks remaining until the planned July 23 opening ceremony, set to take place after a one-year postponement, the path forward remains shaky. 

The IOC’s determination to press ahead is countered by frequent resistance from Japan’s citizens, politicians, medical workers and corporate leaders. 

After IOC Vice President John Coates said the Games would go ahead even if Japan was under a state of emergency, as much of the country is, Olympics Minister

Tamayo Marukawa

said: “It’s natural that many Japanese would object to that.” 

Opinion polls in Japan have consistently shown large majorities of the public opposed to the Games going ahead as planned. In a sign of a possible softening of resistance, a survey published on Monday showed opinion split almost evenly between those who want the Olympics to be canceled and those who think they can go ahead.

The government’s top medical adviser on Covid-19,

Dr. Shigeru Omi,

who has been a constant voice of caution about the Olympics, last week said it was “not normal” to be proceeding and the event should be kept as small as possible.

Kengo Sakurada,

head of the Japan Association of Corporate Executives, said the government should set clear targets for lowering the number of new infections and cancel the Games if Japan isn’t reaching the targets. 

“If the indicators aren’t getting better” and vaccinations don’t hit a million a day as Prime Minister Suga has pledged, “I think the rational decision would be to say, ‘Unfortunately, we’re going to have to give up,’” he said.

Mr. Suga has declined to answer questions about acceptable conditions for the Olympics or a possible cancellation. “I want to have a safe and secure Games, applying the advice of experts on preventing infection,” he said recently.

The IOC is banking on its 2013 host-city agreement with Tokyo 2020 organizers to carry the day. That agreement stipulates conditions under which the IOC, and only the IOC, can call off the Games. Yet general principles of contract law dictate that other parties also have the ability to cancel, said Johan Lindholm, a law professor at Sweden’s Umeå University who specializes in constitutional and sports law.

Because the host agreement isn’t signed by anyone in Japan’s federal government, Japan wouldn’t be in breach of contract if, for instance, the government refused to issue visas to incoming athletes or if the legislature passed a law preventing competitions from taking place over pandemic concerns, Lindholm said. 

If Japan backs out of hosting the Games, the IOC could sue to try to recover some of the billions in revenue it stands to lose. In that event, the matter would proceed to the Switzerland-based Court of Arbitration for Sport, according to the host-city contract.

That court is overseen by Coates, who also chairs the Tokyo Olympics coordination commission. 

Late last year in response to Wall Street Journal questions about the appearance that his roles at the IOC and CAS could present a conflict of interests, Coates said his position as CAS president “has no role in the appointment of Panels or the running of the proceedings.” 

If CAS determines it’s ill-suited to govern the dispute, then the case could be shifted to courts in Switzerland, since the host-city document is governed by Swiss law.

The IOC has a significant financial stake in the Games happening. It generates about 73% of its revenue from the sale of broadcast rights, which would be threatened if the Olympics didn’t happen. Staging the Games even with few or no in-person spectators would preserve that revenue. 

From Japan’s perspective, it’s already lost much of the value of hosting the Games, said Domenic Romano, founder and partner of New York-based Romano Law. Overseas spectators are prohibited from attending, curbing tourism visits and dollars that are part of the attraction of hosting an Olympics. A decision hasn’t been made on how many local fans, if any, will be allowed to attend events. 

“Under U.S. law, we call it ‘frustration of purpose,’” Romano said. “The purpose of the contract has been frustrated, therefore we move for a postponement, is probably the best move they have,” he said.

A man walks past the National Stadium in Tokyo.


Rodrigo Reyes Marin/Zuma Press

Tokyo organizers have said they won’t postpone a second time. It’s unclear whether the mounting public pressure or Japan’s slow vaccine rollout would shift that perspective.

Takeshi Niinami,

chief executive of Suntory Holdings Ltd. and an adviser to the prime minister on economic policy, said gathering momentum in the vaccine rollout could change public sentiment, but the government should seek to negotiate with the IOC about an exit if concerns about safety remain high.

“We can decide in maybe two or three weeks from now,” he said on May 28.

Even as it faces significant financial losses, the IOC suing Olympic host-city organizers is an unlikely step, said Romano. 

“What would be the optics of the IOC suing a country that’s trying to protect its population?” Romano said. “And what message would that send to future host cities, too?”

Write to Rachel Bachman at [email protected] and Alastair Gale at [email protected]

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