The world will come together to celebrate the Olympic Games in Tokyo, Japan—it’ll just be one year later than originally planned. When the International Olympic Committee (IOC) announced its decision to postpone the 2020 Summer Olympics due to the coronavirus pandemic, the next question was when the games would take place.
Rick Burton, the David B. Falk Endowed Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University’s Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics, spoke about the historic decision to postpone the Summer Olympics, now set for July 23-Aug. 8, 2021, while the Paralympics, which follow the Olympic Games in the same host city, will be Aug. 24-Sept. 5.
The decision to delay the Olympics and select a new date was difficult. The games have never been postponed before, but they have been cancelled three times because of war. “To postpone it and get it wrong is a real risk for the leaders of the Olympic movement,” says Burton, who served as the chief marketing officer for the U.S. Olympic Committee at the Beijing 2008 Summer Olympics.
Many factors went into the decision, says Burton. As the IOC members debated the options for alternative dates, one possibility they considered—and ultimately rejected—was holding the Olympics in the spring of 2021 rather than summer. “By having the Olympics in the summer instead of the spring, they’ll be held the same time of year for the athletes and there’s more time for travel arrangements,” Burton says. “It also gives everyone 15 months to conclude that COVID-19 has been beaten.” On the other hand, Burton explains, “if COVID-19 is still raging somewhere in the world as of November, the IOC may still have a hard time holding the games in July 2021.”
One of the biggest concerns the IOC faced with rescheduling was the world calendar of events for 33 sport disciplines. The new dates are the best option for minimizing the postponement's disruption of these pre-existing schedules. They should also provide enough time for athletes to finish their home country qualification process. To date, approximately half of the athletes eligible for the games had qualified to compete.
“Moving the games gives the athletes more time,” says Burton. “But right now, not being able to train properly and not having a vaccine, I imagine the athletes are still skeptical that July 2021 will happen. In addition, not every country will have eliminated COVID-19 at the same time. Still, most athletes will hope to see the opening ceremonies in July 2021 despite everything still being up in the air.”
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