Re-Organizing Olympics a Herculean Task, Says ex-IOC Marketing Head

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Thomas Bach and the IOC should not be criticized for procrastination over the Tokyo Olympics as re-organizing them is "mind bogglingly complex", the movement's former head of marketing Michael Payne told AFP.

Payne, who in nearly two decades at the International Olympic Committee was widely credited with transforming its brand and finances through sponsorship, said Monday the IOC could have unilaterally cancelled the Games because of the coronavirus pandemic.

However, Payne believes that was never an option given Bach's experience as a sportsman of missing out on the 1980 Moscow Olympics due to a boycott by Western nations in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Payne said behind the scenes the IOC have been moving towards a postponement for a while.

"It is mind-boggling complex to make a sudden change after seven years of preparation for the biggest sporting event in the world," he told AFP in a phone interview.

"The IOC have been with increasing urgency looking to fall back on Plan B. The IOC remit allows them legally to cancel the Games unilaterally.

"Cancelling the Games though is not an option so to postpone the Games, you have to have your delivery partner (Japan) on board."

Payne said Japan would take its time to decide as until recently the local organizers had been enthusiastic about maintaining the Games in their scheduled slot. 

"The Japanese have been holding out in the hope it might still be possible to hold the Games in July," he said.

"The cost to the Japanese of postponing them is loss of face and political capital to (Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo) Abe as this is very much his project.

"In the last few days Japan have been very up for them to go ahead but the problem is the rest of the world cannot get there."

- Summer 2021 'only option' -

Payne said the Japanese reluctance to contemplate postponement has left Bach with "one arm tied behind his back."

However, with Australia and Canada now calling for a delay to next year even the option of delaying by a few months looks unlikely.

"The Japanese message is maybe hoping for postponing to later in the year but would this solve uncertainty?" Payne asked.

"The last thing you want is a dark cloud hanging over the Games, as in 'is it going to happen?'.

"Various teams now saying they want it postponed till 2021 helps the IOC's hand with the Japanese and saying 'October will not work'."

Payne said Abe would consider a Games in 2021 as a enormous consolation prize given the grave circumstances.

"As difficult as that could be to Abe to postpone to 2021 I believe Japan could host the greatest Games ever," he said.

"The DNA of the Olympic Games after all is a celebration and humanity coming together.

"Next year the Japanese can celebrate by saying we have come through this so it would be huge for Abe.

"Summer 2021 is the best option -- indeed the only option."

Payne dismissed the theory that US broadcaster NBC or the main sponsors would dictate the terms of a postponement. 

"One of the complete misnomers is all the debate is being directed by NBC and sponsors," he said.

"Nothing could be further from the truth. The IOC does not consult sponsors or NBC before they vote on who gets the Games.

"The idea the IOC say to sponsors, 'what works best for you?' is just not the way it works."

At the end of it, though, Payne believes Bach will be guided by his own painful experience of being denied the chance to defend the fencing title he won in 1976 because West Germany withdrew from the Moscow Olympics.

"He is marked by what went on in the 1980s with IOC presidents making the wrong decisions vis a vis boycotts (the Soviet bloc then boycotted the 1984 Los Angeles Games)," said Payne.

"He is  mindful of what cancellation of a Games could mean to 6,000 athletes as many just get one shot in their careers.  

"So he was never going to opt for cancellation."