Coronavirus and the Tokyo Olympics: A lot of questions, few answers

The 2020 Summer Olympics are less than five months out, and as much as we want to know what the contingency plans are because of the global outbreak of coronavirus, we don't. Time is both working for Tokyo 2020 and working against it.

With more than an estimated 600,000 tourists from around the world set to descend upon Tokyo for the Games -- and this doesn't include the millions of Japanese citizens who will attend -- there is intense speculation the virus, officially called COVID-19, will alter the biggest sporting spectacle of the year. Those numbers of travelers and attendees don't include the more than 11,000 athletes from roughly 200 nations.

More than 70 countries have reported at least one case of the coronavirus since it was first detected in Wuhan, China, in December.

But it's too early to do anything drastic regarding the Olympic Games, according to experts and health organizations monitoring the situation. The panic associated with the coronavirus lies in the uncertainty of it, according to Dr. Brian McCloskey, who led public health planning for the London 2012 Olympics.

The possibility of an outbreak -- of any kind -- is one the Tokyo organizers have been planning against since they were named host city seven years ago.

"The Olympics have never been canceled because of an issue like this previously," McCloskey told ESPN.com. "We are seeing various sporting events and other big gatherings being canceled at the moment. That's primarily because of the degree of uncertainty. I think that people are nervous because they don't know what's happening. My view is that there is no need to worry about the Olympics."

As the Olympics near, the Tokyo organizers are monitoring outbreaks among the general public already living in the area -- in addition to any visitors, spectators and athletes. The city already has monitoring systems in place, according to McCloskey, and is using enhanced systems as the Olympics near that will be used throughout the Games.

The coronavirus outbreak has infected close to 90,000 people globally as of Tuesday, with at least 3,100 deaths, mostly in mainland China. On Friday, the World Health Organization upgraded the global risk to "very high."

WHO is advising the organizers of the Tokyo Olympics on the outbreak. Dr. Mike Ryan, head of WHO's health emergencies program, told reporters on a call Feb. 27 that to his "understanding, no decision has or will be taken in the near term regarding the future of the Olympics."

Much is still unknown about the coronavirus, and it is hard to predict what the situation will be like, globally, months from now.

What options are on the table?

The IOC having to deal with this type of infectious outbreak is unprecedented, according to Professor Victor A. Matheson from Holy Cross, who has long studied mega-events like the Olympics. But looking at drastic measures ahead of such a large-scale event is not, he told ESPN.

"Talking about moving things is not unprecedented at all. We actually have a precedent for all these things," Matheson said.

The Olympics in 1916, 1940 and 1944 were canceled because of wars. The 1919 Stanley Cup was canceled as a result of influenza, and the 2003 Women's FIFA World Cup was moved out of China and into the U.S. because of SARS. The Super Bowl in 2002 was pushed back a week in the aftermath of 9/11.

"All of these solutions that people are talking about or potential things that could happen with the Olympics, we've seen all of these at some point in history related to other sporting events," Matheson said.

"The Olympics today is so much bigger than any other event that altering it in any way would be something of monumental scale."

There are several options on the table, all of which hinge on the day-to-day progression or regression of the coronavirus outbreak.

The least logical two options, according to Matheson, are: 1) moving location, because if Tokyo isn't safe enough to hold the Games, a city like London wouldn't be any safer; and 2) canceling the Games.

Postponing the Games by a year or even having no spectators at the events to minimize transmission of coronavirus are more logical options. On Tuesday, Japanese Olympic minister Seiko Hashimoto said in open parliament the hosting contract allows for the nation to postpone the Games until the end of the calendar year.

"But given the choice between not having the Olympics at all in this cycle and doing 2021, I imagine every single one of those member organizations would prefer 2021, rather than nothing at all," Matheson said. "At least for the last 75 years, the Olympics has said the show must go on."

Paul Droubie, a Japanese history professor from Manhattan College, has studied the Olympics for decades. He called the coronavirus threat the organizers' "worst nightmare."

"I just don't know that there are many good options, because the virus isn't under their control," Droubie said. "I think what they'll probably do is wait up until they can't wait any longer, which seems to be maybe May sometime."

The health aspect is just one to take into consideration when it comes to the Olympics.

Following the money

Years of planning have gone into Tokyo 2020. The official budget for the Games is $12.6 billion, of which $6.7 billion is "venue-related" and $5.8 billion is "service-related." Some estimates put the actual cost north of $25 billion.

Marcel Thieliant, a senior Japan economist for Capital Economics, told ESPN much of the spending has already been done, as construction is about finished.

For as much money as this seems, Thieliant points out that "construction spending will be only 0.2% of [Japan's] GDP this year. What's left to spend is the cost of actually running the Games, which should be around $5 billion or 0.1% of GDP."

"[A] last-minute cancellation could still impact tourism revenues, as there wouldn't be enough time to fill the hotel rooms that were booked by Olympics spectators," Thieliant said. "But given that tourism revenue is just 1% of annual GDP, a two-week period of lower occupancy rates in Tokyo isn't a game-changer for Japan's tourism industry."

In addition to the spending already done by Japan and by hopeful attendees, the costs of television deals and marketing campaigns and activations around the Olympics total billions. The TV rights, alone, are over $5 billion.

There is a small silver lining: "The organizers will have undertaken event insurance such as in terrorism, travel cancellations, communicable diseases, etc.," a spokesperson for Lloyd's of London, a London-based insurance and reinsurance market, told ESPN.com.

There's also the impact on the more than 11,000 athletes training for Tokyo.

"Athletes would not take out insurance policies for event cancellation per se, as this would more likely be done by the organizers instead," the Lloyd's spokesperson said. "Other financial implications would include the impact on hospitality, travel and hotel bookings as well as global broadcasting contracts and sponsorship withdrawal. If the Olympic Games were to be postponed, this would ultimately affect a slowing Japanese economy that is predicted to enter a technical recession later this year."

The bottom line

In a call with reporters on Feb. 27, IOC president Thomas Bach said the Olympic committee will move forward as planned in July.

"I will not add fuel to the flames of speculation. The IOC, in cooperation with all the authorities and the [National Olympic Committees], is fully committed to successful Olympic Games in Tokyo starting on the 24th of July," Bach said at the time and after senior IOC official Dick Pound created some alarm.

The IOC executive board is expressing its "full commitment to the success of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020, taking place from 24 July to 9 August 2020." The board has meetings Tuesday and Wednesday in Switzerland, but don't expect any definitive decisions on Tokyo.

"It will be a balance between leaving it as late as we can to ensure we understand more about this coronavirus and doing it before it's too late in terms of people who spent money," McCloskey said. "Technically speaking, the Games could be canceled an hour before the opening ceremony or an hour before the closing ceremony.

"There's no fixed time [at which] beyond this date, they can't do it. I think in the next five months we'll see. Either, the outbreak will start to fade away or about managing each case as it arises."

Over the weekend, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention updated its travel alert for Japan, raising it to a Level 2 for U.S. citizens.

In the alert, the CDC says Japan is "experiencing sustained community transmission" of coronavirus, and "older adults and those with chronic medical conditions should consider postponing nonessential travel." Only Level 3 is a higher warning, to "avoid nonessential travel."

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has called on all elementary, middle and high schools across Japan to close until April to help prevent further spread.

The Tokyo Marathon, which usually draws 20,000 participants and more than one million spectators, was run with 200 elite runners and empty streets over the weekend.

Sports from auto racing to soccer are feeling the coronavirus outbreak's impact around the globe. As the host country of an event as big as the Olympic Games, Japan has been preparing for this type of threat for years. Despite all of their preparations, and even precautions being taken by other impacted countries, all the Olympic organizers can do now is wait and hope for the best, but prepare for the worst.