Will the Tokyo Olympics Really Happen in 2021? The NBA’s Bubble Model Could Help

The International Olympic Committee went to alternating the Summer Olympics and Winter Olympics every two years in the ’90s. Since then, Olympic fans have gotten used to having the Games every other year. That certainty ended this year when the Tokyo Olympics joined a long list of events postponed due to COVID-19.

The committee planning the Olympics insists they’ll take place in July 2021, almost exactly a year after the originally scheduled dates. But the pandemic may have something to say about that. So can the Olympics really happen in 2021, and what’s at stake?

COVID-19 postpones the Tokyo Olympics

The IOC awarded Tokyo with the 2020 Summer Olympics in 2013, and the Games were scheduled to take place from July 24-August 9, 2020. When COVID-19 started to have an impact across the world early in the year, speculation arose that the Games wouldn’t be able to happen as scheduled in the summer and could be postponed or canceled outright. Those fears were realized on March 24, when the IOC confirmed in a statement that the Tokyo Olympics would be “rescheduled to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021″; a new schedule of July 23-August 8, 2021 was subsequently announced.

Planning for the Olympics moves forward

Official Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics advertisement board
A man walks past an official Tokyo 2020 Olympics ad | PHILIP FONG/AFP via Getty Images

Although the pandemic hasn’t been contained as much as people hoped, the IOC and the Tokyo Olympics organizers are moving forward with the Games with the assumption that they’ll happen during the rescheduled time frame, as the New York Times reports. IOC president Thomas Bach recently expressed optimism while visiting Tokyo. He said the Olympics in 2021 “would be the light at the end of this dark tunnel.”

If the event goes on, that is a true statement as it would likely be the first major global sporting event to happen since the onset of COVID-19. Bach also said if a vaccine is available in time, the IOC would work to make sure as many people visiting Japan for the Games as possible get vaccinated before arriving.

Japan has already hosted sporting events

Hosting a sporting event during the pandemic wouldn’t be new to Japan. The country has already hosted several pro sports events with spectators, though not to the venue’s full capacity. Some of Japan’s precautions include requiring mask-wearing by all attendees and seating them at a proper social distance. Event organizers have also told spectators to refrain from loud cheering to avoid potential airborne transmission of the virus.

A bubble could help the situation

The IOC has not announced all the countermeasures planned for the Olympics — expected to be laid out next month. But organizers have revealed some precautions they are considering. One is a bubble, similar to the NBA and NHL’s following their restarts in the summer.

Such a plan, according to organizers, would limit the number of nights any competing athlete could stay in Olympic Village. It would require each participant to leave immediately following the completion of their event, which is when athletes tend to explore the host city and celebrate.

A prohibition on overseas spectators?

There’s still a question about whether organizers will allow spectators from overseas to attend the Games. A final decision is expected by the spring. If overseas visitors are allowed, a possible plan is to require everyone to take a COVID-19 test immediately before flying to Japan and being screened upon arrival at the country’s airports. That would be an alternative to requiring the standard 14-day quarantine when arriving in Japan.