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Coronavirus is stoking fears of Tokyo Olympics customer cancellations

·4 min read
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UPDATE, Mar. 24, 2020: The Tokyo Olympics has been postponed for one year, to July 2021.

The spread of coronavirus is wreaking havoc on a broad range of industries, from airlines to overseas casinos to carmakers to apparel companies that source goods from China—and now it’s casting doubt on the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

Dick Pound, member of the International Olympic Committee (IOC), raised alarms earlier this week when he told the Associated Press that the IOC will have to decide by May what to do about the Olympics amid coronavirus concerns.

The IOC will decide whether the virus is “under sufficient control” at that time, Pound said, and if it isn’t, “You’re probably looking at a cancellation” because “you just don’t postpone something on the size and scale of the Olympics... You can’t just say, ‘We’ll do it in October.’”

On Thursday, officials in Tokyo told Reuters the same thing: that there is no backup plan. “There will not be one bit of change in holding the Games as planned,” Katsura Enyo, the deputy director general of the Tokyo 2020 Preparation Bureau, told Reuters. “We are not even thinking of when or in what contingency we might decide things.”

The comments have sent various travel and hospitality businesses, who sell Olympics packages to customers months in advance, into something of a panic. And it wasn’t just Pound’s comments—some firms are already hearing from customers who want guarantees that they can get a refund if the Olympics are canceled.

Former President of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), Dick Pound attends a Tackling Doping in Sport 2016 conference in London on March 9, 2016. Russia is "changing deckchairs on the Titanic" rather than working to overturn an international ban on its athletes, ex-World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) president Dick Pound told AFP on Wednesday. Russian athletes were banned from competing internationally last year after an independent commission chaired by Pound found evidence of state-sponsored doping in the country.   / AFP / JUSTIN TALLIS        (Photo credit should read JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)
Dick Pound, former president of the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA), attends a Tackling Doping in Sport 2016 conference in London on March 9, 2016. (JUSTIN TALLIS/AFP via Getty Images)

“We’re up to about 50 different client inquiries regarding what happens if the Olympics are canceled,” says the co-owner of a U.S.-based sporting events hospitality firm, who spoke to Yahoo Finance not for attribution. “The majority are seeking assurance of a refund plan, even though very few purchased the recommended travel insurance policy at the time of booking.”

That firm has $3 million invested in the Tokyo Olympics, and is most concerned about travel restrictions and hotel rooms.

The firm says it hasn’t had any clients cancel their Olympics bookings yet due to coronavirus, but it has “seen a dramatic spike in concern” and has had cancellations of bookings for Europe-based events like the UEFA Champions League Final in Istanbul in May.

Indeed, European soccer has been one of the first leagues to take major precautionary measures: On Thursday, Inter Milan will play Ludogrets in a closed stadium, with no fans, due to coronavirus concerns. “That sort of sets a precedent,” says Jack Slingland, VP of operations at ticketing site Tickpick. “If this does get really bad, might that become more common, or was that a more extreme precaution?”

Tickpick mostly sells tickets to events in the U.S. and Canada, and does not sell Olympics tickets, but Slingland says the site is starting to hear from a small subset of customers outside the U.S. who bought tickets to events in the U.S., and are “looking to see if they’re able to cancel an order for an NBA game in April because they’re concerned about travel restrictions.”

NBC, the official broadcaster of the Olympic Games, is surely watching how this plays out.

Olympics organizers have estimated there are 7.8 million tickets available for the Tokyo games, with 20% to 30% of that number for sale outside of Japan.

Japan did shut down all elementary, middle, and high schools until late March to control the spread of the virus.

For now, Japan is saying the summer games will go off as planned.

“Countermeasures against infectious diseases constitute an important part of Tokyo 2020’s plans to host a safe and secure Games,” an Olympics spokesperson told Yahoo Finance. “We have full confidence that the relevant authorities, in particular in Japan and China, will take all the necessary measures to address the situation.”

It’s important to remember that four years ago, the Rio Olympics in Brazil faced a similar situation amid fears about the zika virus. The Rio summer games went ahead as planned. No Olympic Games has been canceled, in fact, since 1944 amid World War II.

Daniel Roberts is an editor-at-large at Yahoo Finance and closely covers sports business. Follow him on Twitter at @readDanwrite.

Read more from Yahoo Finance about coronavirus and sports:

Coronavirus update: Nerves surround Tokyo Olympics

Nike warns coronavirus will have ‘material impact’ on its China business

HSBC downgrades Nike on coronavirus fears

Under Armour warns of coronavirus impact in China, analyst says it has ‘peaked’ in America