Team USA tells athletes to proceed as planned for Tokyo Olympics

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Pedestrians walk near the The New National Stadium, the main venue for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, in Tokyo, on Feb. 19, 2020. Bloomberg photo by Noriko Hayashi.

The U.S. Olympic & Paralympic Committee is telling its teams to train and prepare as planned for the 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo, as it continues to monitor the coronavirus outbreak spreading rapidly through Asia.

Team USA, which plans to send 620 athletes and twice as many coaches and executives to Tokyo, last week told its individual sport bodies that it’s “been given no reason to deviate from any of our Tokyo Games planning and preparation.” The games are set for July 24 through Aug. 9, with the Paralympic Games a few weeks later.

The U.S. has the biggest and most successful Olympic delegation, and draws the most lucrative sponsorships, so its decisions are closely watched. It issued the guidance as the number of infections continues to rise, including a rapid outbreak in Japan to 144 confirmed cases, and the global business community continues to reel from the effects of the virus.

A number of global sporting events and Olympic qualifiers in Asia have already been canceled or relocated, causing many to wonder if the Tokyo games themselves, held just 700 miles from the Chinese mainland, might also be affected.

Delaying, canceling or moving the games is almost unprecedented. Since the founding of the International Olympic Committee in 1896, the games have only been canceled three times: once during World War I and twice during World War II. And while big global sporting events have been moved in the wake of an disease outbreak — the 2003 Women’s World Cup was relocated from China to the U.S. due to SARS — the Summer Olympics are a much, much bigger undertaking, with 11,090 athletes from more than 200 countries scheduled to descend on Tokyo.

“I want to make it clear that the Organizing Committee and the International Olympic Committee are not holding any discussions whatsoever about whether or not to hold the Tokyo Games,” Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told parliament on Feb. 6.Like the organizing committee and Team USA, some analysts and economists say they expect the coronavirus outbreak to be fully contained by the time the games roll around. “I don’t think as a main scenario, the situation will escalate to the point where it will impact the operation of the Olympics itself,” said Shuji Tonouchi, an analyst at Mitsubishi UFJ Morgan Stanley.Tokyo has been preparing for the games for more than seven years, spending more than $26 billion to ready the city, according to some estimates. Much of the economic boost from the games has already been realized, both in infrastructure investment and in rising tourism since the country was announced as a host site.

The bigger economic risk is to the Olympics brand. Sponsors and media companies pay the International Olympic Committee more than $5 billion every four years to attach themselves to the games; a cancellation, if it came to that, would require an epic financial unwinding for an organization already struggling to woo host cities.

Team USA said it’s in close contact with the Centers for Disease Control and the Department of Homeland Security regarding travel policies and with the International Olympic Committee and the local Tokyo organizers regarding the games themselves.

Global concerns about the coronavirus have complicated the run-up to the games, which for most sports features qualifiers and tune-up competitions around the world. Weightlifting’s Asian Championships, for example, moved to Uzbekistan after the planned host, Kazakhstan, restricted travel to and from countries that neighbor China.

American weightlifters have upcoming qualifying competitions in Ohio, Romania and the Dominican Republic, and USA Weightlifting plans to attend each one, said Kevin Farley, the organization’s senior director of engagement. The team intends to ship a lot of its equipment — weights, training platforms, nutrition — to Japan in April, as originally planned, and will have personnel on the ground starting in July.

For now, the U.S. Olympic committee has suggested that its teams limit all nonessential travel to mainland China, Hong Kong and Singapore. The committee said in its memo that it is reviewing the situation regularly. “We are prepared to take every precautionary measure necessary to keep Team USA athletes and staff safe should the situation change,” the committee said.

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