Olympic Q&A: Pandemic Planning for Tickets, Fans, Doctors

November 2, 2020

TOKYO — The postponed Tokyo Olympics are to open in just under nine months, and there are still far more questions than answers.

Organizers in Japan and the International Olympic Committee say they are working on a vast number of contingency plans to hold the Games in the midst of a pandemic. 

Everything is up in the air and could face daily revisions. This includes ticket sales and refunds, experiments to allow maximum seating in venues, and the inevitable need for more medical professionals to test and monitor 15,400 Olympic and Paralympic athletes that are hoping to enter Japan. 

Add to the equation: thousands of officials, judges, VIPs, sponsors, media and broadcasters who typically attend. 

Here are a few answers to pending questions. Many answers will be not fully known until next year, maybe even just months before the Olympics open on July 23, 2021.

Q: How can ticket purchasers even think about seeking refunds when organizers have yet to say if fans will be allowed into venues? And if so, will it be only fans from Japan?

A: Buyers who purchased tickets from the Tokyo organizing committee and already know they can't attend, can apply for refunds this month. There will also be other chances for refunds when organizers decide how many fans can enter venues — if any. This applies only to the 4.48 million Olympic tickets sold to residents of Japan. All other refunds for those who brought outside Japan are at the whim of the so-call Authorized Ticket Resellers  appointed by national Olympic committees. They have their own terms and conditions. These resellers can charge a 20% service charge, which possibly may not be refunded even if tickets are.

Q: What do we know about the possibility of fans being allowed into venues?

A: It seems likely. The real question is will only Japanese residents be allowed, or will the Japanese government and organizers decide to allow non-Japanese to enter. Japan has basically sealed the border to foreigners since the pandemic began and has attributed about 1,800 deaths to COVID-19. This compares with more than 230,000 in the United States.

Q: Are fans being allowed to attend sports events in Japan.

A: Yes. Baseball and professional soccer are being played in stadiums filled to about 50% capacity. Officials in Japan are now experimenting with hi-tech devices to see if they can fill sports stadiums to near capacity. The baseball stadium in Yokohama had a capacity crowd over the weekend. Of course, everyone in Japan wears a mask — everywhere. The Yokohama stadium used high-precision cameras, carbon-dioxide monitors, and machines to measure wind speed and direction. The experiments will be passed on to Tokyo Olympic officials.

Q: What will these Olympics cost, and who pays?

A: There are lots of numbers out there. The organizers say the official cost is $12.6 billion although a government audit last year said it's twice that much. All but $5.6 billion is public money. The University of Oxford in September said these are the most expensive Summer Olympics on record.

Over and above this, neither the IOC nor organizers have said what the delay will cost. Estimates in Japan say it's an added $2 billion to $3 billion. The IOC has said it will make $650 million available to defray some costs of the delay. So most of the bills are on the Japanese taxpayers including, presumably, the cost of testing the 15,400 Olympic and Paralympic athletes and anyone else who enters for the Olympics.

The IOC derived 73% of its income of $5.7 billion over the latest four-year Olympic cycle from selling broadcast rights. Another 18% is from sponsors. The Olympics have to take place in some form or another to ensure the IOC's financial viability.

Q: Are non-Japanese athletes being allowed to enter and compete in events in Japan?

A: Not really. The first test comes this Sunday when 24 gymnasts from Russia, China, and the United States will join eight gymnasts from Japan for a one-day meet in Tokyo. This is another in a long list of stage-managed events in the recent weeks to show that Japan can handle the Olympics during a pandemic. It's notable that two-time defending Olympic champion gymnast Kohei Uchimura of Japan was reported to have tested positive for COVID-19 and could miss the meet.

Q: Will the Olympics put a strain on Japan's health-care system?

A: Toshiro Muto, the CEO of the organizing committee, has suggested there may be a shortage of doctors and other health-care workers during the Games. He also has said he does not want to stress local hospitals and workers.

"Japan's health professionals, especially the infectious control experts, the numbers of them are limited," Muto told a news briefing last week, speaking in Japanese. "We don't want to put a strain on them and we don't want to have an impact on the local health-care system."

Q: When is IOC President Thomas Bach going to visit Tokyo?

A: Bach scrapped a trip to Seoul, South Korea, last month because of concerns over traveling during the pandemic, which is surging in many countries. Bach was named the winner of the Seoul Peace Prize in September for his political role in bringing North and South Korea together at the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang, South Korea. Several reports have suggested he will be in Tokyo this month to meet new Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga. But this has not been confirmed.


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