Member Insights: How Long Can The Olympic Uncertainty Exist?
March 19, 2020
Ed Warner, former Chairman of UK Athletics and current GB Wheelchair Rugby Chair-Designate, discusses the potential knock-on ramifications postponement, or even cancellation, of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics could cause.
The growing clamour from athletes for the Olympics and Paralympics to be postponed is understandable. But so too is the IOC’s and IPC’s reluctance to make any decisions just yet. The financial, reputational and sporting stakes are high for everyone, including the sportspeople at the heart of the Games. Taking a holistic view of the least bad outcome is especially difficult given the range of sports and nations involved.
At GB Wheelchair Rugby our view is coloured by our heavy reliance on philanthropy from corporates and individuals to have got the GB team to its current point of preparedness – qualified for Tokyo and ranked fourth in the world in spite of being chopped from Lottery funding after the Rio Paralympics. If this year’s Games are postponed until, say, 2021 we would face a severe financial challenge. Will our patrons be able and willing to extend their generous support in the face of a severe global recession? Would UK Sport be prepared to grant us emergency funding to cover any shortfall?
We need a decision about the Paralympics by early June. With the Olympics scheduled to start a month earlier than the Paras, you might assume that a definitive decision for those Games is required by early May.
Our athletes are currently pursuing bespoke home training programmes. We are planning for the possibility that they will have no opportunities to compete as a team between now and Tokyo, and likely enjoy only a short preparation camp ahead of the start of competition on 26 August. Hardly ideal, but it’s the same for all eight nations that will be at the tournament and we know that our squad are focused and are being given every assistance to be match-ready when it matters.
How long, though, can the uncertainty realistically persist? Working back from the start of competition, given the need for some period of preparation as a team rather than as individuals in isolation, we need a decision about the Paralympics by early June. With the Olympics scheduled to start a month earlier than the Paras, you might assume that a definitive decision for those Games is required by early May. And not just a decision, but a health environment at that time that will allow athletes to meet in order to complete qualification for selection by their national teams.
Put in those terms – that there is only about seven weeks before an environment must exist that is sufficiently safe for a decision to be taken to proceed as planned – it is easy to see why the odds are that the Olympics will be postponed. From GBWR’s perspective, a short postponement for the Olympics would be preferable to a long one if that allowed the Paralympics to proceed as planned, simply reversing the usual order of the two Games. But again, that presupposes that the health crisis is improving markedly in a couple of months’ time.
While with net funds of $2.4 billion the IOC ostensibly has the firepower to help sports through these rainiest of days, the cost to the IOC itself of any postponement of the Tokyo Games would likely be enormous
We are not alone in confronting conjoined sporting and financial challenges right now. Within the UK, those sports on full Lottery funding are likely to feel that their elite athlete programmes are well insulated. However, other arms of their governing bodies may be suffering severe financial damage, especially if they depend heavily on hosting major events in their business models.
UK Athletics, an organisation I used to chair, will be viewing the possible cancellation of its Diamond League meeting in the London Stadium with some terror. This event forms the cornerstone of UKA’s commercial model, and the governing body has already allowed its reserves to sink to dangerously low levels over the past couple of years. Outside of the Olympic sphere, the ECB’s balance sheet – and its ability to support its member counties – could be decimated by a summer bereft of international cricket. Similarly, the LTA’s heavy reliance on its annual donation from the profits of the Wimbledon Championships could be exposed as a fundamental flaw if that competition can’t go ahead.
International federations are similarly vulnerable. For example, World Athletics runs at a hefty operating loss every year in confident expectation that its quadrennial payment from the IOC after each Olympics – roughly $40 million after Rio – will repair its balance sheet. Other IFs will have a similar reliance on the staging of the Games and their fee from its owner. While with net funds of $2.4 billion the IOC ostensibly has the firepower to help sports through these rainiest of days, the cost to the IOC itself of any postponement of the Tokyo Games would likely be enormous, so crimping its ability to assist both international federations and national Olympic committees. This then is the lens through which to view Thomas Bach’s pronouncements in the coming days and weeks.
If you have any opinions or insights you are interested in contributing to iSportconnect, please contact Ben Page – email@example.com – to discuss further.