COVID-related protocols for the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo are ongoing. We will continue to update this page as information becomes available. This page was last updated on July 8.
If you have questions about the upcoming Games—“When are the Olympics?” is a major one, but let’s not forget wondering if they’re even going to happen—you’re not the only one. Like the SARS-CoV-2 virus itself (and every trip, get-together, or event you’ve planned since the pandemic started), the situation has been evolving ever since much of the world essentially shut down in the spring of 2020.
So what does that mean for the 2020 Olympics? While there are still a ton of lingering unknowns about what’s safe, what’s not, and exactly what things will look like as we open back up, we have gotten a little more clarity regarding the Games over these past few weeks and months. Still, we can’t be entirely sure things won’t change as the Olympics loom closer.
In the meantime, to help answer some of your most burning questions, here’s everything we know about the Olympics now.
When are the Olympics, and where will the Games be held?
The Olympic Games are scheduled to take place from July 21 through August 8, 2021. The Paralympics are scheduled for August 24 through September 5, 2021.
Where they are taking place requires a little more explanation. As you’d expect, most of the events will take place right in Tokyo—it is, after all, called the Tokyo Olympics. However, some events will actually be held outside of Japan’s capital city.
The marathon and race walking courses will be outside the city limits, in Sapporo Odori Park, about 500 miles north of Tokyo, where it’s considerably cooler. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) made the move out of consideration for the athletes’ well-being—average August temps in Tokyo are in the 80s—and for the sake of logistics. The park’s layout allows marathoners and race walkers to share a venue; plus the park has plenty of hills, which makes for a varied and exciting course.
Road cycling races will take place at the Fuji International Speedway, about 100 kilometers southwest of Tokyo, while the mountain bike courses will be on the Izu MTB course, about a two-hour drive from Tokyo. Surfing will be held at Tsurigasaki Surfing Beach, about 90 minutes west of the city.
For details on the locations of specific events, check the official Olympics website.
Why are the Olympics taking place in 2021?
Originally scheduled for 2020, the Olympics were pushed back a year because of COVID-19.
According to a press release from the International Olympic Committee (IOC) that came out right after the pandemic started in March 2020, it chose to postpone the event for safety reasons. Not only were there concerns about the direct effects on the athletes’ health, but also about the public health risks that would have come with staging a huge international gathering during a pandemic.
The IOC also hoped that keeping the Olympics in Tokyo “could stand as a beacon of hope to the world during these troubled times and that the Olympic flame could become the light at the end of the tunnel in which the world finds itself at present.”
As for why the Games are still being called the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020, despite the fact that they’re happening in 2021? Well, that’s not totally clear. One possibility? Finances could definitely play a part. The Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games (OCOG) has already allocated $1.3 billion to marketing—and a branding overhaul to reflect the new dates would cost even more.
Have we ever skipped an Olympics before?
Short answer: Yes, but only in wartime.
The slightly longer answer requires a quick history lesson. Since the first Olympic Games were held in 1896, they’ve been canceled three times. World War I prevented the Berlin Games from happening in 1916, and during World War II, they were canceled in 1940 and 1944.
Interestingly, the 1940 Games were originally scheduled to take place in Japan, which would have marked the first time a non-Western country hosted the event. But the Japanese government forfeited its right to hold the Games, citing tensions with China as the reason. At that point, the Games were slated to take place in Helsinki, but World War II took them off the calendar until London hosted in 1948.
Although the 1972 Munich games weren’t canceled, they were temporarily suspended due to a terrorist attack at the Olympic Village. The Games paused for 34 hours before resuming.
What is the COVID-19 situation in Japan?
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) uses a travel-risk classification system to help travelers weigh their potential exposure to COVID-19 in a given area. The classification system uses a scale of 1 to 4, where 1 means there’s a low level of COVID-19 in the area and 4 means there’s a very high level. Right now (as of July 6, 2021), Japan is at a 3, or a “high” level. In other words, it’s not the safest place to be regarding COVID-19. Then again, the U.S. (as a whole) is also classified as a level 3. (For additional reference, Australia is level 1; Brazil is level 4.)
The CDC uses data from the World Health Organization to classify these levels. In areas where the population is greater than 100,000, level 3 reflects an incidence rate (the number of new cases over the past 28 days per 100,000 people) of anywhere from 100 to 500. The CDC recommends being fully vaccinated before going to a level 3 designation (and if you’re unvaccinated, to avoid nonessential trips there). Even if you are vaccinated, Japan’s level 3 status means you could still be at risk for getting and transmitting COVID-19 variants, the CDC says.
Are residents okay with the Tokyo Games going on?
With the high level of COVID-19 in Japan, it raises the question: How do the people who live there feel about thousands of athletes from all over the world traveling there?
Not surprisingly, a lot of them aren’t happy about it. Many Japanese residents have been protesting the Games. A June survey from one of Japan’s largest newspapers showed that 64% of Tokyo’s population was against holding the Games in their home city this summer, preferring instead to postpone them again or suspend them. (This was down from 83% who reported feeling this way in May.)
According to the BBC, 10,000 registered Japanese volunteers have backed out, hospitals have displayed messages on their windows reading “Stop Olympics,” and hundreds of cities withdrew their commitments to host competitors. In May, amid a spike in cases, a campaign calling for the cancellation of the Games circulated a petition, which garnered 350,000 signatures in less than two weeks.
Under the circumstances, we can understand why many people wouldn’t be thrilled about hosting a huge international event. Right now, about 10% of Japanese residents are fully vaccinated, according to data from The New York Times. The government declared a state of emergency in May 2021, which was partially lifted in mid-June—only to be reintroduced on July 8. The latest state of emergency is set to begin on July 12 and last through the Olympics, according to The New York Times.
What COVID-19 safety precautions will be required for Olympic athletes?
There are a lot. But given Japan’s current level 3 status and the fact that athletes need to stay healthy in order to compete, this shouldn’t be a surprise.
On top of taking two COVID-19 tests before flying to Japan, athletes will also test daily for three days once they arrive, then ideally get regular testing even after that. Each athlete will have to adhere to their daily activity plan, which includes eating only in preapproved venues with established COVID-19 precautions.
They’re also expected to avoid being within six feet of any other athlete who has already been in Japan for more than two weeks, and anyone who is a resident of Japan (including non-athletes).
Local transportation has stipulations as well; once they’re in Japan, competitors can’t use public transit and will only be allowed in designated Games vehicles.
Will Olympic spectators be allowed?
This has been an evolving situation: Back in March, the IOC announced its decision to ban international visitors from being spectators at the Games. Local spectators would still be allowed at limited capacity.
Then on July 8, following the new state of emergency announcement in Japan due to growing cases of COVID-19, the IOC released a statement that no spectators would be allowed into any venues in Tokyo for the Games. (The decision regarding spectators for the Paralympic Games, which begin later in August, will be made when the Olympic Games end.)
According to the statement, if there is a significant change in infection rates, a five-party meeting (the IOC, International Paralympic Committee, Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee, Tokyo Metropolitan Government, and Government of Japan) will be “convened immediately to review the spectator capacity.”
Could the 2021 Olympics be canceled?
This is probably the biggest question. Even though we have less than a month to go until the Opening Ceremonies, the answer isn’t exactly clear-cut. Per the terms of the contract, the only party who has the legal right to pull the plug on the Games is the IOC—not Japan. The contract states that cancellation would be warranted if the IOC deems holding the Games a threat to the safety of its participants.
Could the pandemic be considered such a threat? Absolutely.
CNN reports that the IOC has insurance that would cover the (huge) payout if it decided to withdraw from its contract. But experts say the significant financial losses in terms of broadcasting and sponsorship would be very hard to calculate—not to mention the intangible costs to the Olympics’ reputation and the athletes’ careers. And at this point—with several of the trials wrapped and many of the teams already determined—the prospect of cancellation seems less and less likely.
However, as we’ve been doing since March 2020, the only thing we can do now is wait and see.