Postponing the Olympics, the largest sporting event in the world, in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic was a widely accepted move, the acknowledgment of a chorus of worried voices around the world.
Actually moving the massive Tokyo Games, though, presents an entirely new set of challenges, a jigsaw puzzle of logistics for organizers to assemble in relatively short order.
“We will make sure not to inconvenience people as much as possible,” Toshiro Muto, the chief executive of Tokyo 2020, said after Olympic organizers delayed the Games to 2021.
For many reasons, that seems easier said than done.
Postponing the Games until 2021, for instance, risks scheduling clashes with the world championship events of two of the biggest Olympic sports, track and field and swimming. Though officials did not specify new dates for the Tokyo Games, they were originally planned for July 24 to Aug. 9, so a shift of exactly 12 months would create certain conflict, absent more maneuvering.
The governing bodies of the two sports rely on their world championship events as vital sources of income, but both released public statements signaling their intention to work with the I.O.C. and, if necessary, to shift the dates of their events.
Track and field’s World Athletics Championships are scheduled to begin Aug. 6, 2021, in Eugene, Oregon, and in a statement, World Athletics said it was already working to “ensure that Oregon is able to host the World Athletics Championships on alternative dates, should that prove necessary.”
The world championships of swimming are scheduled to start July 16, 2021, in Fukuoka, Japan. FINA, the sport’s governing body, said in a statement that it plans to work with the Japanese Swimming Federation and public officials there “in order to determine flexibility around the dates of the competition, if necessary and in agreement with the I.O.C.”
The Olympics have been canceled during wartime, but never postponed.
Faced with this fresh challenge, international sports federations were sent scrambling on Tuesday to figure out how to shift qualification processes that were already halfway done. About 57 percent of athletes had qualified for the Games already, and questions swirled about whether their spots would remain secure for 2021, and what the new qualification parameters might look like across dozens of sports.
Athletes around the world began deciding whether the 2021 Games still fit into their life plans. And organizers in Japan began pondering which logistical plans could stay intact for another year.
“There is not a book you can go to now and say, ‘OK, here’s Plan B,’” said Terrence Burns, a longtime Olympic bid consultant. “Right now there is a blank piece of paper.”
Burns said Japan was lucky that its Games were essentially ready to go and that many components of the event — transportation, security, housing, and others — were already in place to some extent.
“They have all the ingredients for the cake in the pan; they just have to wait another year to put it in the oven,” said Burns, who also noted that the organizers were lucky to have found sponsors and to have raised funds already.
Yet while the postponement helps to save Japan’s investment, it could still incur some significant costs. Muto said, for instance, that many of the venues that had been leased for this year would have to be extended for another year.
“Our plan was to return all of the Games venues once we had finished,” Muto said. “So to hire them again means we have to pay additional costs for them and we might have to hire people until next year.”
And, Muto noted, “quite a lot” of the venues have already been booked for next year, meaning those scheduling conflicts would have to be resolved in order for those facilities to be secured.
Who exactly would pay for all of that, Muto added, was still up for discussion.
The needs of ticket holders, many of whom entered popular lotteries, as well as those volunteers who had planned on traveling to Tokyo from around the world, were also being considered, but there were no answers yet to give.
“Our policy is going to be, as much as possible, to make sure that people who have already bought tickets and people who have already been chosen as volunteers will get a special consideration,” Muto said, while acknowledging that some people who. have been planning to attend the 2020 Games for several years might not be able to adjust to new dates.
Anbritt Stengele, the president of Sports Traveler, a company specializing in travel packages to major international sporting events, said she had already been in contact with hotels and other business operators in Tokyo about shifting the company’s contracts to the following year.
But Stengele said little progress could be made by her or anyone else planning travel or business around the Olympics until the new dates for the Games were announced.
“I think they have to come up with a date pretty soon,” Stengele said. “There are millions of ticket holders all over the world, and they need some definitive solutions.”
The I.O.C. could also face some financial costs. The Summer Olympics are the I.O.C.’s most significant source of income, money that it distributes to dozens of sports federations and more than 200 national Olympic bodies. A year’s delay could put those payments in doubt, given that broadcasters, notably NBC, which make up the bulk of its revenue, pay most of their fees close to the start of the Games.
In order to meet its costs, and not deplete its reserves more than necessary, the I.O.C. could perhaps ask its broadcast partners and sponsors to make payments earlier than they normally would be expected.
NBC, which will have to transform its programming schedule, declined to comment beyond a statement indicating that it understood the decision of the I.O.C. and Japanese government to postpone the Games.
After a long awaited announcement, the only thing that seemed certain on Tuesday was that the uncharted territory could potentially change the way the global sports industry is run.
“There will be much more robust business continuity and contingency planning in response to pandemics like this,” said Kristen Jaconi, a risk management expert at the University of Southern California. “It is a new a playbook for the sports industry, no question.”