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Why withdrawing from Tokyo 2020 was “toughest decision” for Canadian Olympic Committee

(Credit: Getty Images)

  • Canada was first country to announce it was pulling out of Summer Games due to Covid-19 pandemic
  • “It was an incredibly difficult decision…a lot of people were heartbroken,” says COC senior executive
  • Within 48 hours, IOC and Japanese government made decision to postpone Olympics by up to a year

The Canadian Olympic Committee played a small but significant role in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics being postponed by becoming the first national organization to announce that it would not send athletes to the Games if they were held this summer amid the global Covid-19 pandemic.

Other national Olympic committees – including Brazil, Slovenia and Norway – and national governing bodies, such as USA Swimming and USA Track and Field, had publicly called on the International Olympic Committee to postpone.

But Canada was the first nation to say it was not prepared to send a delegation to the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics if they went ahead as scheduled this summer, “urgently” calling for them to be postponed by a year.

The COC announcement on March 22, which was backed by the Athletes’ Commission, its national sport organizations and the Government of Canada, led to an immediate domino effect. Just a few hours later, the Australian Olympic Committee released a statement of its own, telling its athletes to prepare for a rescheduling of the Olympics to 2021.

Two days later, amid ever-increasing pressure, the IOC and Japanese government agreed to postpone the 2020 Summer Olympics “to a date beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021”.

The Games have indeed since been rescheduled for the summer of 2021, following almost the exact timetable that would have occurred this year.

At the time of the COC announcement, a postponement of the Olympics was far from guaranteed, making the statement something of a calculated gamble. But it has since proven to be not only the correct decision but a meaningful one as well.

SportBusiness spoke to Photi Sotiropoulos, the COC’s director of communications and media relations, about the process behind the decision and the wider impact it had.

Did the COC feel a sense of enormity in the decision to be the first national Olympic Committee to announce it would not send athletes to a 2020 Olympics even though there had been rising pressure to postpone?

Definitely. This is the toughest decision that we have all had to make professionally in our entire careers. It was incredibly difficult to turn around and say to our athletes that the thing that they most wanted – the Olympic Games – and the thing that they had been preparing for for years, we didn’t think that it was a safe place to go to. And more to the point, we didn’t feel it was safe for them to be training during the period leading up to the Games, which would have been July 24. We analyzed this and quickly came to the conclusion that this was much bigger than sport, this was a world health situation, and we did not want to put our athletes in harm’s way.

What effect did you think the COC decision would have? Did you expect others to follow?

We took the decision independent of what other national Olympic committees were doing or thinking at the time. We heavily based it on two key factors. The first being our athlete community and making sure that we were listening to what they were saying and the second was our chief medical officer [Mike Wilkinson], who had been on almost daily phone calls with the World Health Organization, and was telling us basically that what we were hoping to accomplish this summer in terms getting the entire planet together to celebrate the Games was likely not going to be a possibility. He was also warning about another factor, which was in our current situation our health authorities in Canada were telling us all to stay indoors and stay home and the public institutions, such as training facilities and gymnasiums, were closing.

We thought it was an unfair request for us to be asking our athletes to be going to those facilities and endangering the people they work with, they live with, their family and friends. When we factored in these things it really didn’t matter that other national Olympic committees were thinking about it, we knew that ultimately they were all going to come to the same conclusion as we did.

(Getty Images)

How supportive were the COC’s commercial partners of the decision?

Our corporate partners have all been incredibly supportive of this decision. A lot of them have gone on social media and messaged the International Olympic Committee or our athletes directly, applauding our decision. We feel that from where we stand currently it was the right decision at the right time. The fact of the matter is, the IOC within 48 hours of us making that decision turned around and took a lot less than the four weeks they indicated they would need and made a decision almost immediately with the Japanese government to postpone the Games.

Was anyone from within the COC family against the move?

No one was against the decision. A lot of people were heartbroken by the decision. There is an importance nuance between the two. People understood it, they were heartbroken, but accepting and agreeing that it was the right thing to do. The way this decision was made, there were three calls that were made. Specifically on the day the decision was made, a call was made to the Athletes Commission, which is our elected body of athletes, and we had a very frank conversation with a lot of those athletes who were competing or qualifying for the Tokyo 2020 Games and they were all in agreement that it was the right move to make, even though it meant that they might be able to go to the Games next year for a whole variety of reasons.

The second call was with over 100 members of our sports community – the sports governing bodies – so that was with the CEOs, high performance directors, executive directors and they were all in agreement that it was the right decision. Finally, there was a third call with the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic boards to make sure that everyone was on board from a board perspective. Immediately after, we wrote the press release and sent it out.

What does a year delay mean for the COC in terms of branding and corporate deals and so on?

One of the things we’ve had to do is pivot so our brand campaign that was planned to come out had to be altered completely. There were a lot of partner calls that needed to be made to look out how those relationships were going to be managed or what needed to change in terms of the activation of those relationships.

For all intents and purposes, these are the Tokyo 2020 Games, but they just happen to be scheduled in 2021. So all the partnership agreements that we have for Tokyo 2020 remain intact and those relationships will be activated on next summer instead of this summer. We were quite happy to hear that the Games were not canceled as that would have been the worst-case scenario but also that the naming of the Games remained intact.

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