The Olympic Games have only been cancelled three times in its modern history: in 1916, 1940 and 1944 during World Wars.
On January 30 of this year, the International Health Regulations Emergency Committee of the World Health Organization declared the coronavirus outbreak a public health emergency of international concern. This declaration now potentially threatens the 2020 Olympic Games in Japan, which at present are still slated to light the torch July 24th in Tokyo, the world’s most populous metropolitan area.
At its core, sports represents a celebration, bringing millions of people together to see the greatest athletes on the planet together show their skills in venues of all types. But these gatherings are not immune from natural disasters, terrorism, national tragedy, war, infrastructure breakdowns, and now, the current threat of contagion.
Will there ever be a circumstance like a pandemic that takes sports away from us for an extended period of time? With the current uncertainty and fear of coronavirus we are seeing daily disruption from cancellations to games being played in empty stadiums to protect fans and athletes, in turn raising concerns of larger impacts potentially still to come.
Of course, disruptions similar to what we are now seeing because of coronavirus are not unprecedented. The 2003 Women’s World Cup, for example, was relocated from China to the United States during the SARS outbreak. In 2001, days after the September 11 terrorist attacks, organizers of Golf’s Ryder Cup postponed for 12 months, and other major US sports properties also readjusted their schedules.
Having spent five decades in multiple sports, there are now a wide variety of vulnerabilities and scenarios that should cause us concern.
On November 24, 1963 the National Football League decided to play a full slate of games, just two days after President John F. Kennedy was gunned down in Dallas, Texas. As the traumatized country was dealing with questions that couldn’t be answered, NFL Commissioner Pete Rozelle stated, “It has been traditional in sports for athletes to perform in times of great personal tragedy.”
His decision has been the subject of emotional debate every time there is a subsequent national tragedy and the sports world has to decide whether to play in the wake of that or not, and how to soon to return to action. And it was a call that Rozelle would quickly come to regret, and he later said repeatedly was the worst of his legendary career.
The inexplicable mass shootings in Las Vegas, Orlando, Newtown, and too many other communities stop us in our tracks and forces a national re-examination of how public places are intended to be safe havens, but too often are not. Sports has been cited as a healing agent for our fears, emotional pain, loss of lives, and angst. Games often seem to be an acceptable security blanket when we don’t know where else to turn for solace as a larger community.
Most sports venues have ramped up their security protocols over the past few years. At most live events now, fans have to pass through metal detectors, and there are numerous other safety tools available to teams and venue operators such as facial recognition technology, video surveillance, and bomb-sniffing dogs. But no matter how vigilant officials may be, a madman bent on violence is always a possibility, and complacency is not an option.
It’s never wise to fool with Mother Nature. The massive San Francisco North Bay wildfires, hurricanes, tornadoes, and Hundred-Year Floods now seem to be occurring every month all across our country.
But more than three decades ago there was an even worse example, On October 17, 1989, the Loma Prieta earthquake interrupted Game 3 of Major League Baseball’s World Series between the San Francisco Giants and cross-bay Oakland A’s, killing 62, causing massive damage, and creating a 10-day interruption until the region was ready to play ball again. This was the first live, natural disaster broadcast during a sports event. It almost certainly won’t be the last.
The Great Depression of 1929-33 and the Great Recession of 2007-09 caused marked retreat in consumers’ disposable income, which is the lifeblood of spectator sports, and cutting heavily into key revenue stream such as attendance and sponsorship sales. As strong as stock markets around the world were a week ago, tomorrow can bring unexpected and seismic change. How is your stock portfolio looking these days, and how prepared are you to respond to massive and immediate economic shifts?
Influenza, SARS, malaria, West Nile virus, E-coli, or some other form of disease or virus that force governments to regulate the size of public gatherings is always a looming threat. Sooner or later, government officials will run into a flu or other public health emergency they simply won’t be able to control. Can you imagine the conversations that are going on now behind close doors between the Japanese government and the IOC on how to deal with the real time events that are playing out across the globe.
It is important to remember that sports is not impervious to the stark realities playing out in our everyday lives in cities and towns around the world, and that threats to the normal operations of the sports industry are more serious and far broader than ever.