Hope or money: what’s the real reason behind the Tokyo Olympics going ahead?

Team GB have had the best start to the Olympics ever.  Tom Daley has won his first gold, 13 years after his first Games; Tom Dean is the first British swimmer to collect two golds in the past 113 years; and Charlotte Dujardin has become the most decorated British female Olympian.

But in the excitement of celebrating Team GB’s success, it’s been easy to overlook the question that has dogged the Tokyo Olympics pretty much since it was cancelled last year. Why is it taking place during a pandemic? We take a look.

Hope Lights Our Way

According to Thomas Bach, the International Olympic Committee President, cancelling the Olympics “was never an option”  but with Tokyo entering a state of emergency just days before the Olympics started, spectators being banned and athletes being forced to self-isolate, it makes you wonder whether that was the right decision.

But before we blame Japan for allowing the Games to go ahead, bear in mind that the Olympic Games are the “exclusive property” of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), meaning they are the only ones who can cancel the Games. Of course, Japan could have opted to not allow the Olympics to go ahead, but that would have meant they were in breach of contract with the IOC and therefore solely responsible for all the losses.

But what’s more surprising, and maybe a little bit concerning is the IOC did have a justifiable reason to cancel the Games namely if “the IOC has reasonable grounds to believe, in its sole discretion, that the safety of participants in the Games would be seriously threatened or jeopardised for any reason whatsoever”.

As of 29 July, 199 people connected with the Olympics have tested positive for COVID-19. Isn’t this figure enough to suggest the event should have been cancelled? What about the potential long-term impact of COVID-19 which could destroy an athletes’ career?

‘Hope Lights Our Way’ was the message of the Olympic torch relay, but maybe it’s not so

much about bringing hope to the world, but more about hoping that staging the Olympics won’t be an unmitigated disaster.

So, what role do the sponsors play?

The Olympics is the biggest sporting event in the world, which makes it a major draw for sponsors and advertisers alike. And in spite of the pandemic, this year has been no exception. There are over 60 sponsor and partner brands including Coca-Cola, Visa, Airbnb, Canon and Ashai. Some of these are worldwide partners who have committed to four-year sponsorship packages. In the case of Toyota this cost a cool $835 million for a deal running from 2017 to 2024. In addition, 47 Japanese companies have poured $3 billion into Olympics.

So, based on the figures involved, could one of the reasons why the Olympic Games weren’t cancelled be down to the sponsors?

To be honest, we’re not so sure. Back in June, some of the biggest sponsors were urging for a delay to the Tokyo Olympics as they could clearly see their specially planned marketing campaigns were going to fall flat with no spectators present.  For them it made sense to wait a few months until more spectators could attend and more people were vaccinated.

Sponsors also recognised another major issue – the potential reputational damage of being associated with an event which seems to be ignoring medical advice and which 80% of the Japanese public oppose.

It’s hardly surprising then, that just days before the Olympics started, Toyota took all its Olympics-related TV ads off the air in Japan. A drastic but incredibly savvy move from one of the major sponsors. Not only does it show they are in tune with public sentiment about the Games (even 48% of the American public think they shouldn’t have gone ahead!) but given their branding is prominently displayed across the Games, they are still getting good coverage. And the worldwide headlines about them pulling their Olympics’ ads, won’t do them any harm either!

Naturally, a number of other brands, including Fujitsu and NEC followed their lead, declining to take part in the Opening Ceremony in an attempt to distance themselves from the event. Some such as Nippon Life even changed their approach to advertising, choosing to show support for Japanese athletes, rather than launching new marketing campaigns.

So, who is the driving force?

And after what happened at Euro 2020, we can’t help feeling that it’s not so much the sponsors who were insistent on the Olympics going ahead (after all, who would want to advertise at an event facing a worldwide backlash and no spectators?), but rather the governing bodies.

When Ronaldo moved the Coca-Cola bottle at a Euro 2020 press conference, Coca-Cola were seemingly unphased, saying ‘Everyone is entitled to their drink preferences. UEFA not so much, threatening players with fines and disciplinary action if they didn’t meet their ‘obligations’.

And when you factor in that the broadcasting rights for the Olympics are due to net the IOC $1 billion, you start to think that maybe holding the Games wasn’t about hope, doing it for the athletes or even about keeping the sponsors happy. If it was any of that, then the broadcasting rights wouldn’t be so restrictive that the BBC is only allowed to show two live events at any one time.

And while it’s true that the IOC is a non-profit organisation, and says that it redistributes 90% of its revenues, you do still have to question why holding the Olympics during a pandemic was more important than the health and welfare of the athletes and everyone else who makes up the Olympics? We don’t want to say it’s all about the money, but it certainly seems that way, especially since last year’s postponement costs were estimated to be in the region of £656 million.  Who wouldn’t want to recoup some of those losses?

Fingers crossed they have made the right decision in staging the Tokyo Olympics and that they really do bring a smattering of hope during what’s been a hard couple of years. We’d hate the Tokyo Olympics to be remembered for all the wrong reasons.