The Olympic Games have always been about numbers. After all, a motto of Citius, Altius, Fortius — faster, higher, stronger — doesn’t mean much without seconds, meters and pounds. How fast? How high? How strong?
For more than a year, though, a different set of numbers has come to dominate discussions about the Tokyo Games: rising coronavirus case counts, escalating risk factors, inadequate vaccination totals.
Despite those concerns, the Games are almost certain to go forward this summer: The latest evidence was the announcement on Monday that domestic spectators would be allowed to attend Olympic events at reduced capacities.
These numbers may help explain why — a month before the opening ceremony — the Games are still a go.
If Tokyo’s new national stadium stands empty on the night of the opening ceremony, that will be $15.4 billion in investment mostly down the drain. The figure, a record even for famously oversized Olympic budgets, has swelled $3 billion in the past year alone. The reputational damage to Japan, though, on top of the loss of money, would be incalculable.
“This was the branding exercise that was going to showcase the lifestyle superpower of the earth,” said Jesper Koll, an investment adviser who has lived in Japan for more than three decades. “At the end of the day, it is not about whether the construction costs are recouped or not, but it is about whether the brand of the country gets a boost.”
Much of the upside that Tokyo hoteliers or restaurants could have expected from hosting the Games has already evaporated, as organizers banned international spectators in March. And even the Olympic visitors who will be allowed to enter Japan will not get to experience most of Tokyo’s charms because the rules restrict them to Olympic venues.
That’s the potential amount of television rights income that the International Olympic Committee, which organizes and runs the Games, could have to refund if the Olympics are not held. The figure accounts for 73 percent of the I.O.C.’s revenue. Sponsorships related to the Games account for hundreds of millions of dollars more, and a cancellation would mean those companies could come looking for rebates, too.
The U.S. broadcasting rights to the Summer Olympics are among the most valuable sports properties in the world, and the advertising revenue they produce regularly makes them among the most profitable, too. In March 2020, NBC Universal, which holds the U.S. broadcast rights to the Games, announced it had sold $1.25 billion in national advertising for the Tokyo Olympics. That exceeded the amount sold for the 2016 Rio Olympics, which had generated $1.62 billion in total revenue for the company and $250 million in profits.
And not even a year’s delay may hurt NBC’s bottom line. Jeff Shell, the chief executive of NBC Universal, told an investor conference last week that, depending upon ratings, the Tokyo Olympics “could be our most profitable Olympics in the history of the company.”
The word “solidarity” comes up 406 times in the I.O.C.’s latest annual report. The most significant reference is to the $549 million it distributes in so-called solidarity and other payments to national Olympic committees large and small. (The I.O.C.’s accounts do not provide a breakdown of who gets what.)
To many Olympic committees, the I.O.C.’s largess — which pays for everything from administrative costs to training subsidies to youth development programs — is a vital financial lifeline. In the Caribbean island of St. Lucia, for example, I.O.C. funding represents around a quarter of the national Olympic committee’s $600,000 annual income, according to Richard Peterkin, a former I.O.C. member.
But larger countries count on the money, too. Earlier this year, the British Olympic Association raised the prospect of a financial meltdown in its annual report if this summer’s Games were canceled. “Cancellation of the Games later than May 2021,” its directors concluded recently, “would create a material uncertainty that may cast significant doubt about the company’s ability to continue as a going concern.”
The postponement of the Olympics forced thousands of the athletes — about 11,100 for the Olympics and another 4,400 for the Paralympics, together representing more than 200 countries — to put their lives on hold for a year. To recommit to another 12 months of training. To delay marriage plans and college enrollments and even plans to have children. So it is no surprise that, by and large, competitors worldwide are eager for the Games to finally take place.
“My next chapter was supposed to be happening already,” said Delante Johnson, 22, a boxer from Cleveland who had aimed to turn professional in 2021. He decided to keep his amateur status for another year, in part, to fulfill a promise he had made to his former coach, Clint Martin, who died in 2015. “He always told me I’d go to the Olympics,” Johnson said, “and I’m holding on to what he said.”
For Olympians who have arranged their entire lives to chase their dreams, the Games are everything. They can open the door to sponsorship opportunities, to bonus money for medals, to post-competition careers. For many, they also offer the rare chance to perform in front of a global audience. “We’re finally allowed to have that excitement, and I’m just giddy,” said Kaleigh Gilchrist, 29, a water polo player from Newport Beach, Calif. “We can finally showcase all the hard work we’ve put in.”
That’s the current favorability rating for Japan’s prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, who may fear his political fortunes are now tied too closely to the Games to cancel them. “Politically he’s dead in the water if he pulls the plug,” said Jeff Kingston, the director of Asian studies at Temple University in Tokyo. With national elections looming in September, Kingston said, Suga may now see the Olympics as a potential lifeline.
For Suga and his government, staging a successful — and safe — Olympics would offer a huge political upside. The downside, of course, is the risk of a public health disaster that costs lives and pummels Japan’s economy. That would inflict damage far more serious than just harming Suga’s personal political reputation.
“This is the potential making of the Godzilla variant,” Kingston said. “Is that how Tokyo wants to be remembered?”