Olympics organizers change their mind again, won’t have spectators as coronavirus pandemic lingers

By Matt Collins Article may include affiliate links

The delayed 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo is backtracking and banning spectators from events due to a surge in coronavirus cases in Japan and elsewhere.

Earlier in 2021, the IOC announced it would only allow Japanese residents to attend events, reversing an earlier decision that would have allowed limited attendance from anyone buying a ticket and willing to travel to Tokyo.

As part of an earlier plan for operating an Olympics during what is still a global pandemic, to IOC asked spectators to refraining from cheering over fears that aerosols from an infected person could be ejected from their mouth and nose and spread to nearby fans.

Now, under the new guidelines announced July 8, 2021, the games will take place under a now familiar site: Mostly empty audience seating.

The move isn’t surprising — especially given the global nature of the event with many people in close proximity to each other and unable to wear masks when actively competing.

However, it’s another blow to an event that was, in an unprecedented move, was postponed one year due to the pandemic (before this, the games had been canceled in 1940 and 1944 due to World War II).

Despite moving to 2021, the IOC is still labeling the games using “2020” for marketing and record keeping purposes.

Some other sporting events, particularly televised ones, have tried various methods to make the empty stands look less awkward — from covering them with large branded tarps to installing LED panels in front of them.

Others have tried placing cardboard cutouts of fans in the seats or replacing at least some of the audience area with video screens showing live or taped clips of fans.

There’s no word on if the IOC has plans to do any of these — or even if this would be possible to do given the tight turnaround to prepare these types of installations.

In some ways, the move to ban spectators and the limited number of venues will create a “bubble” of sorts — a strategy used throughout the pandemic by leagues that limited all season games to one or a handful of locations with no audiences and controlled contact between players and staff and the outside world, sometimes requiring them to isolate in hotels or other housing during the season.

Of course, this still has the risk of the athletes spreading germs inside the Olympic village, the official housing for athletes and teams, including the coronavirus, to each other, and the Olympics has the added headache of having thousands of athletes traveling from hundreds of countries around the globe, each with unique approaches to handling the coronavirus and at various stages in vaccination efforts.

The IOC already announced plans for screening, testing and isolation as needed.

Fans who paid for tickets, meanwhile, appear to be eligible for refunds from the IOC’s portion of the ticket cost, but many have already reported that local authorized ticket resellers aren’t being as generous with refunds. Others are finding that foreign transaction fees also aren’t be refunded. Although the fee structure varies, the ticketing industry is notorious for charging high fees that add substantially to the face value of the ticket.

Meanwhile, many global broadcasters are planning record coverage of the games across linear TV and streaming. In the U.S., NBC, which pays billions in broadcast fees to the IOC, is leveraging many of its broadcast and cable assets as well as streaming platform Peacock and other digital platforms.

The big question is if broadcasters can deliver on the ratings they have promised advertisers — which already had to be rebooked from 2020.