There are growing calls from both citizens and doctors to cancel the Summer Olympics games scheduled to be held in Japan.
Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga recently suggested the decision was not his. “The IOC has the authority to decide,” Suga said last month. “And the IOC has already decided to hold the Tokyo Olympics.”
What does that mean legally?
A contract was signed back in 2013, giving Japan the right to host these Olympics but granting that power exclusively to the International Olympic Committee (IOC).
The so-called host city contract, legal experts say, is extremely “one-sided” or “imbalanced.” It gives the IOC broad leeway to terminate it.
On the other hand, “Tokyo does not have any contractual right to terminate its contract with the IOC, even in the exceptional circumstances presented by COVID,” said Leon Farr, a senior associate at Onside Law, a London-based firm specializing in sports.
Several international sports lawyers noted that Swiss law, which governs the contract, gives parties an out “if the commitment to the contract has become unreasonable for the party in general due to changed circumstances.
But multiple experts said Tokyo would likely lose that “just cause” argument. “The hurdle that case law sets for the existence of a just cause is very high,” explained Kai Ludwig, an attorney at the Zurich-based Monteneri Sports Law firm.
“It must be a very weighty reason and termination must be the only and last resort.”
If the IOC is determined to hold the Games, then, Tokyo’s only way out of the Olympics would be to unilaterally break the contract. Doing so could cost it what Japanese lawyer Yoshihisa Hayakawa calls “a gigantic amount of money.”
A contract breach would give the IOC the right to sue Tokyo, the JOC, and the organizing committee. It also forces Tokyo to answer to any claim by a third party arising from, or in connection with, a breach.
A third party is any and all entities who already paid money to be associated with the Olympics. Estimates of that total amount could range from hundreds of millions of dollars to tens of billions.
According to Andrew Zimbalist, an economist and Olympics expert, the IOC could theoretically “sue for international TV money plus sponsorship money minus insurance coverage, probably coming to around $4 to 5 billion.”
According to a Reuters report from January, insurers are facing a $2-3 bn loss if the Olympics are canceled, amounting to the largest ever claim in the global event cancellation market.
Despite Japan’s unease, the Games will likely happen. Dick Pound, the IOC’s longest-serving member, said that the probability is “very close to 100%.”
Doctors sound the alarm
The Tokyo Medical Practitioners Association has called for the cancelation of the 2021 Olympics as COVID-19 cases surge in Japan’s largest city.
The group representing 6,000 primary care doctors noted hospitals in Tokyo “have their hands full and have almost no spare capacity, amid a surge in infections,” according to Reuters.
In a recent poll, 83% of voters in a nationwide survey said the Olympics should be postponed or canceled, as per the Asahi Shimbun in Japan. Only 14% of respondents believe the Olympics should be held in Tokyo this summer.
IOC president Thomas Bach said recently that the Olympics starting on July 23 will be a “safe and secure” event despite the surging COVID-19 cases.
“The Olympic Village is a safe place and the Olympic and Paralympic Games will be organized in a safe way,” Bach said, per the Associated Press.
Bach noted more than 80% of Olympic athletes will be vaccinated. However, less than 2% of Tokyo’s population is currently vaccinated.
A petition which garnered 350,000 signatures in nine days in support of cancellation has been submitted to organizers.
Also last week, the CEO of leading Japanese e-commerce company Rakuten said that holding the Games amid the pandemic amounts to a “suicide mission”.
Speaking recently to CNN Sport, World Athletics president Seb Coe said that 70% of those chasing Olympic participation are only going to have one chance to compete at what is likely to be the pinnacle of their sporting careers.
To cancel the Games, Coe said, would be to “discard a generation of athletes who have spent over half their young lives in pursuit of this one moment.”
The Olympics have been canceled on three previous occasions: in 1916, 1940, and 1944, each time because of world wars.