Coronavirus: What would it take to cancel plans for the Olympics?

What is certain is that Japan won’t take any chances with the potentially deadly virus

Tokyo will undoubtedly take any potential coronavirus outbreak at the Olympics very seriously. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images

Tokyo will undoubtedly take any potential coronavirus outbreak at the Olympics very seriously. Photo: Clive Rose/Getty Images


John Lennon always said life is what happens while you’re busy making plans for the next Olympics. Or some words to that effect. It helps when Tokyo has already been declared the “most ready” host city in Olympic history, and practically every venue and merchandise desk and ticket sale has been completed either on time or well ahead of it.

Still even the best laid plans can sometimes go astray, a gentle reminder of that coming this week when the Ireland women’s hockey team were forced to cancel next month’s pre-Games training camp in Malaysia due to the coronavirus outbreak. Malaysia is one of at least 25 countries with reported infections, now amounting to somewhere over 28,000 in all while the number of deaths in China has risen above 500.

Few countries in the world take their fear of airborne diseases more seriously than Japan, and anyone who has stood at Shibuya Crossing in Tokyo for more than two seconds won’t need reminding of that. On Wednesday, Tokyo Olympic chief executive Toshiro Muto said he was “seriously worried” the coronavirus could disrupt both their Olympic and Paralympics plans this July and August, only to downgrade that worry a day later by saying everyone needed to remain “cool headed”.

There is some precedent here in that the Olympics have been cancelled before, although only after the outbreak of world war – firstly in 1916, when the Summer Games were scheduled for Berlin before all hell broke loose, with plans for both the Summer and Winter Games of 1940 and 1944 also shelved due to the millions of deaths and casualties of World War II.

Zika virus

There is also some mild comparison with the mysterious Zika virus, which surrounded the Rio Olympics in 2016 and saw a select few cancel their plans to take part well in advance, our own Rory McIlroy and Shane Lowry leading the way. It’s still early days in that regard, it seems, although there is a big difference between the Zika virus and coming up with a plan to contain the potentially fatal coronavirus among 11,000 athletes from around 210 countries in the Tokyo Olympic Village, should it ever get to that crisis point.

What is certain is that Japan won’t take any chances, and there is evidence of that with the 3,700 passengers and crew stuck onboard the Diamond Princess, a cruise ship moored and in quarantine off the port of Yokohama, near Tokyo. The 20 cases so far recorded onboard the ship brings the number of infections in Japan to 45, the highest total outside mainland China. Just so you know.

In the meantime they were busy making plans for the next Olympics out in Howth on Friday morning at Olympic House, the home of the artists formerly known as the Olympic Council of Ireland (OCI), now utterly transformed – transfigured even – as the Olympic Federation of Ireland (OFI). In this case it wasn’t actually Tokyo they were planning for, but the next Winter Olympics in 2022, which happen to be set for the Chinese capital of Beijing (and towns in the neighbouring Hebei province).

Among them was Brendan Doyle, the 34-year-old skeleton racer who missed out on qualifying for the 2018 PyeongChang Winter Olympics by a mere two points, yet remains boldly undeterred in his quest to make it to Beijing. Doyle was among the seven potential Irish Winter Olympians to benefit from an OFI scholarship fund of just under €60,000 towards that quest, his appreciation of the support softly tempered by the realisation had those Beijing Winter Olympics been set for 2020 they would unquestionably have been cancelled due to the coronavirus outbreak (just like the 2020 World Athletics Championships set for in Nanjing this March).

“It’s an absolute lifeline for me,” Doyle said of the OFI funds. “We just don’t have the infrastructure here in to train for the skeleton, we have to go away, and this support doesn’t just allow me to do that, but also strive towards a higher and more elite level. And something positive as well is just how much more ‘athlete central’ the OFI are, say compared to the previous cycle. Even just in terms of showing an interest in my event. It’s massive.”

Massively different in other ways too, considering my last visit to Olympic House was to doorstep one of the many crisis meetings that followed Pat Hickey’s resignation as president of the former OCI, following his naked arrest at the five-star Winsdor Marapendi Hotel in Rio in the early hours of August 17th, 2016. And just to think that all began on a non-eventful morn.

Curious case

Hickey may still be awaiting a fair and reasonable quest for closure, some final judgement call on his still curious case of ticket touting and money laundering, but there is no denying the OFI are in a better place, especially considering that without the invention of the pesky Rio police, for whatever reason, all famously captured on Brazilian TV, the same OCI which had “failed on basic requirements” would still be running the show.

That was the headline of the Deloitte report, published two months after Hickey’s arrest in Rio, which helped cue the complete dismantling of the OCI, and also came with 25 recommendations, all of which have now been implemented by the OFI. Two years before Rio, Hickey also won a record seventh four-year term as president, originally due to expire in 2018, which would have meant the Dubliner had done 29 years in office. It’s worth remembering too at that point Hickey had also lined up his second vice president, John Delaney, as his likely successor, before the FAI’s own lack of transparency and incompetence was finally shown up after the pesky reporting of Mark Tighe.

Under the presidency of Sarah Keane, and chief executive Peter Sherrard, the OFI completed another part of their Tokyo planning this week with the announcement of Adidas as the Team Ireland kit sponsor, an extension of the deal signed last year through Irish distributor McKeever Sports (and marked by inviting Olympians such as Natalya Coyle and Brendan Boyce to Olympic House to make sure all the kit fits).

Later this month the OFI will announce an airline partner which will ensure business class travel to Tokyo for every participating athlete, not just the blazers, following headline sponsorship deals already agreed over the last two years with FBD Insurance, Circle K and Indeed recruitment, the latter two also designed to directly benefit the athletes.

Indeed these may well be the best planned Olympics from an Irish perspective, and according to latest Gracenote Virtual Medal Table, which collates and analyses results data from all the key competitions, six medals are predicted for Irish competitors, including two gold, one silver, and three bronze – the same number as our record six medals won in London in 2012, improving on the colour of one. Still there may be some things no one has yet planned for. 

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