Published: April 15, 2020

Ask the expert: the ripple effect of postponing Olympic Games

Contact(s): Caroline Brooks Communications and Brand Strategy office: 517-432-0920, Eva Kassens-Noor School of Planning, Design and Construction office: (517) 432-8085

The International Olympic Committee made history when it postponed the 2020 Summer Olympic Games – set to take place in Tokyo, Japan – to 2021 due to the COVID-19 global health crisis.

Since the opening of the first modern Olympic Games in 1896, the only other times the games were cancelled were because of World War I and World War II. But as cases of the virus continued to rise in early 2020, countries began to withdraw their participation – underscoring the severity of the pandemic.

Eva Kassens-Noor, associate professor of Urban and Regional Planning at Michigan State University, focuses her research on extreme events that fundamentally change everyday life. She has kept a close eye on the 2020 pandemic and provided insights on the effects the postponed games will have across the world.

Can you talk a little bit about why delaying the Olympics was such a big deal?

Delaying the Olympic Games is absolutely essential to safeguard populations. The Olympics could have been a gateway for a second wave of COVID-19 across the world in a matter of few weeks. I wish the International Olympic Community had taken that decision much sooner to be a role model for countries around the world that these types of gatherings must be cancelled to safeguard those affected by the pandemic, and to ease the minds of athletes and trainers across the world who have been worried tremendously about not being able to participate.

How will the delay of the Olympic games impact Tokyo’s economy? What about infrastructure?

The pandemic’s impact will likely overshadow any impact cancelled games will have. In fact, I would actually expect construction to be cheaper with a delayed completion horizon. Olympic constructions that have to adhere to a fixed deadline frequently skyrocket in cost right before the event. But with an extended time horizon, overtime pay won’t be necessary and there is a possibility to renegotiate contracts. Given the one-year delay, Tokyo will also have to factor in maintenance costs for existing venues, which we’re already seeing right now due to no activity because of the pandemic.

This is the first non-war year that the Olympic games have been postponed. Speaking broadly, what magnitude will this delay have on non-host countries?

The pandemic will have a much harder impact on non-host countries than the delayed games themselves. The athletes cannot train due to the disruption in non-host and host countries. So, if we think about this in broader terms, we might speculate that the countries that get the pandemic under control the fastest will have more time to prepare their athletes for the 2021 games.

Is there anything Tokyo could/should be doing with the extra time they have to prepare?

Japan has seemingly been one of the countries that has handled the COVID-19 outbreak very efficiently. One thing I am fairly certain they will assess or reassess is the safety of travelers who come to Japan with a renewed and intensive focus on public health. The fact that the outbreak occurred in Asia might renew fears of international travelers and locals alike, diseases could rapidly spread. To minimize that fear, new health protocols will need to be in place.

Tokyo is more developed than host cities of the past, but it costs a lot to keep Olympic villages intact and venues ready. What advantages – or disadvantages – does Tokyo have to withstand this ‘on hold’ status?

The disadvantage stems from the pandemic, in which especially large gathering must be banned. Simple events like soccer games can turn into a large-scale spread if COVID-19 has not been eradicated. Hence, I presume that the venues will be kept empty for an extended period of time. The advantage is that Japan has a very stable economy that can absorb the costs, even when we go into a global recession.

What aren’t people talking about yet in regard to this delay?

I think the delay will have a broader impact on the Olympic movement and the IOC, which draws most of its revenue from broadcasting rights. These revenues will get delayed for at least a year. The other factor, as mentioned earlier, is that public health of travelers has not been a major point in preparation of host cities. With this outbreak in particular, I see new requirements arising that future hosts have to answer.

Eva Kassens-Noor, associate professor of Urban and Regional Planning. Photo by G.L. Kohuth.

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