Tokyo 2020 – The Olympic business in the time of Covid19

Rome Business School – Research Center

Tokyo 2020 wasn’t the first Olympics not to be played in the year scheduled for the award. There are three similar precedents in the history of the modern Olympic Games.

In fact, Berlin 1916, Tokyo 1940 and London 1944 editions were cancelled and recovered many years later due to the two world wars. After the first cancellation in 1916, the Summer Olympics resumed in Antwerp in 1920 and were organized regularly until 1936. In 1924 the first Winter Olympics were held, which since then began to be organized with the usual four-year cadence. In 1940, however, they had to stop again due to the Second World War, an event that directly involved Japan, a country that was supposed to host the winter Games in Sapporo and the summer ones in the capital Tokyo.

With the Tokyo 1940 Olympics, Japan aimed to be the first Asian country chosen as organizer of the modern Games and to restore its international image after the worsening of diplomatic relations with Western powers. Less than a year after the assignment, however, the Japanese Parliament expressly asked for the cancellation of the event to coincide with the start of the second Sino-Japanese war.

In the same year, the IOC assigned the organization to Helsinki, the second most welcome nomination in the award process. The Finnish capital was supposed to host the Games from 20 July to 4 August 1940, but the previous year in Europe the fighting of the Second World War began: the IOC was forced to cancel the edition. Helsinki was subsequently “compensated” with the 1952 Olympics while Tokyo was awarded the 1964 edition.

Despite their one-year postponement, the Games continued to be officially called the “Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Para Olympics”, a choice similar to that adopted by UEFA after the postponement of the European Football Championships. A solution “forced” by the extent of the following events. In fact, it would have been impossible for the Tokyo 2020 organizers to correct and replace all the communication produced from 2013 (the year of the official assignment by the CIOs) to today, both physically and in the collective imagination formed in recent years: they are called Tokyo Olympics. Seven-year 2020 – translated: seven years of millionaire investments in marketing, promotion, merchandising, etc. – and this cannot be changed in just over a year.

Despite the economic disaster that a definitive cancellation of the Games would have caused, the majority of the Japanese population opposed the holding of the Games right up to the end. One of the main reasons concerns the slowness of the vaccination plan, which came into effect only recently: one month after the Olympics, in fact, most Japanese had yet to receive the first dose of the anti Covid-19 vaccine.

In addition to the COVID issue, the protests also related to the increase in the cost of highway services around the city of Tokyo (maintained despite the absence of the public in attendance) and the inability of spectators to participate in the events, including the long-awaited ceremony of opening.

Initially, in fact, it was thought about the possibility of allowing “limited” access to the public (as happened for the European football championships), an hypothesis that would have preserved part of the show and the proceeds, but undoubtedly also gave a further headache to the organizers. According to official estimates, there were approximately 3.64 million tickets still in the hands of Japanese fans (only about 800 thousand have been refunded to date). The Tokyo Olympics organizing committee had also announced a lottery among ticket holders to determine who could participate in the opening and closing ceremonies, as well as some athletics sessions and competitions for seven other sports.

The lottery option, however, failed with the announcement of the stop to the public.

The main problem for the much-criticized Tokyo Olympic Games does not only concern the spectators, but also and above all the sponsors who, a few days after the Olympic flame was lit, decided to cancel or reduce the promotional events initially planned. In this regard, the most striking decision is that of the car giant Toyota. The withdrawal of the Japanese brand from the Games reflects the choice not to see its brand associated with a potentially negative event, in consideration of the high level of opposition within public opinion and the risks associated with the spread of infections.

The fact is that the budget of the Games estimated to raise 800 million dollars in revenue from the sale of approximately 7.8 million tickets. Less than half have been sold, but now they will have to be reimbursed.

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