In under two months, the coronavirus (COVID-19) has plunged economic markets into disarray, claimed the lives of thousands of people and evoked fear worldwide. Emory professionals are leading the fight to slow the spread of and find a cure for COVID-19. Until then, however, the virus may claim another, unexpected victim.

The 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

Dick Pound, a longtime member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC) claimed last week that the devolution of COVID-19 into a worldwide pandemic could warrant cancellation of the Tokyo games.

“In and around that time, I’d say folks are going to have to ask: ‘Is this under sufficient control that we can be confident about going to Tokyo or not?’” Pound said in an interview with the Associated Press.

Other IOC officials clarified soon after that the Olympics are still expected to proceed and that Japan is implementing preventative measures to slow the spread of COVID-19. However, the unpredictability of the virus could undermine their efforts. Should COVID-19’s rampant spread continue through May, the month in which the IOC will likely decide the fate of the Olympics, we would be entering uncharted waters. 

What would the cancelation of the Tokyo Summer Olympics mean? First, it would signal that COVID-19 has turned into a global pandemic. The virus is already on that trajectory, as novel cases have been reported in California. A COVID-19-induced cancellation would be the first time the Olympics were canceled in 76 years, and only the fourth time ever. The Olympics have only been canceled three times before, during World War I and World War II — 1916, 1940 and 1944. The fact that the IOC is even considering canceling the Olympics speaks to the severity of COVID-19. 

Second, cancellation could hurt the Olympic image. The Olympics are a staple to global culture. Every four years, viewers from dozens of countries are given the opportunity to express abject enthusiasm for their home and engage in friendly, yet competitive, banter with people from all over the world. However, each of the past two Olympics — the Pyeongchang 2018 Winter Olympics and Rio de Janeiro 2016 Summer Olympics — received less viewership than their respective predecessors. The cancellation of the Tokyo Olympics could exacerbate growing disinterest in the international competition. Less interest will inevitably lead to less revenue and a greater financial burden for the host country, which would heighten the reluctance that is growing among prospective host countries.  

Japan will have a tough decision to make come May. If COVID-19 is not under control by then, there is a strong chance that this summer’s Olympics will be canceled, an occurrence that could very well affect the future of the Olympics. It would also harm the country financially, as, when all is said and done, Japan would have spent upwards of $26 billion for a competition that won’t be played. The 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo would be COVID-19’s most expensive victim but cancellation is more than necessary if it means mitigating the pandemic.