How foolish would you look if you would have suddenly called off the Games today and in two-and-a-half months’ time, the world is pulling through it: Former IOC Marketing Head, Payne

Written by Mihir Vasavda
| New Delhi |

Updated: March 19, 2020 10:19:22 am

A man wearing protective face mask, following the outbreak of the coronavirus, looks at his mobile phone next to The Olympic rings in front of the Japan Olympics Museum in Tokyo, Japan. (Reuters)

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) ‘will not react to media or political pressure’ and will rather ‘wait and see how the global health situation evolves’ before taking any decision in relation to the Tokyo Olympics, according to an executive credited for transforming the Olympic movement into a multi-billion-dollar enterprise.

On Wednesday, the clamour to reschedule the Games in the wake of the Coronavirus outbreak grew after the IOC’s athletes commission member Hayley Wickenheiser launched the most vocal attack so far, calling the decision to go ahead as scheduled ‘insensitive and irresponsible’.

There have been voices of dissent among the athletes as well, including Indian badminton player Parupalli Kashyap, who wrote on Twitter: “IOC is encouraging us to continue training .. and how? Where? Ur joking right”.

However, Michael Payne, who was IOC’s first marketing and broadcast rights director and stayed in that role for two decades, said the Olympics have a history of overcoming crisis and ‘risk management is a key part of the planning for the Games for both, the IOC and the Organising Committee.’

“There have been numerous different crises over the years that have always made the final countdown very challenging. Even if you take the most recent Games (winter), two years ago in PyeongChang… three months before those Games. the political situation on the Korean Peninsula was very, very uncertain with President (Donald) Trump and Kim Jong-un talking of a nuclear war,” Payne told The Indian Express over phone from Costa Brava, where he is in quarantine amid a growing number of cases in Spain. “They went on to be a very, very successful Winter Games.”

He added: “As evidenced from PyeongChang, we don’t suddenly react to whatever media or political pressure there is of the day. In this case, the Games are four months away… How foolish would you look if you would have suddenly called off the Games today and in two-and-a-half months’ time, the world is pulling through it.”

In the aftermath of the virus outbreak, world sport has virtually come to a grinding halt, with extreme quarantine measures and travel restrictions. After the World Health Organisation (WHO) declared Coronavirus a pandemic, there has been speculation over the fate of the Tokyo Olympics, scheduled to begin on July 24.

No cancellation talks

However, Thomas Bach, the Olympic body’s president said that the executive board, which recently met, did not even mention the words’ postponement’ or ‘cancellation’. It is a line taken by the organisers in Tokyo as well. On Tuesday, the IOC added: “With more than four months to go before the Games there is no need for any drastic decisions at this stage, and any speculation at this moment would be counterproductive.”

However, the pressure has been growing on the IOC after UEFA, earlier this week, postponed the European Championships by a year. “UEFA only postponed the European football championships yesterday and those are two months away,” Payne, 61, said. “So you’ve learnt over the years not to be rushed into a decision just because of a sort of moment and it looks like that only because it may look different tomorrow. And that is not in any way to belittle the crisis. I’m in quarantine myself.”

Payne joined the IOC in 1983 and ran its marketing department for more than 20 years. Back then, he says, the Olympics faced an existential crisis after the US boycotted the Moscow Games and the Soviets pulling out of Los Angeles 1984. The period brought the Olympic movement on the verge of bankruptcy.

“There was no mechanism to finance the Olympics. And if you could, by chance, persuade somebody to stage the Games, then four months out, one or other of these superpower leaders would scream boycott and half the countries wouldn’t turn up,” Payne, who went on to head Formula One’s marketing division, said. “Most of the commentators at the time were writing the Olympic movement’s obituary. Thankfully, right now we are not dealing with an existential challenge – it’s not in any way to dismiss the gravity of the current crisis.”

Billions are now splurged on the Olympics in the form of television rights and sponsorships and that money is riding on cancellation or postponement of the Tokyo Games. Payne, who brokered IOC’s deals with Chinese giants Alibaba, China Mengniu Dairy and Coca-Cola, insists TV companies do not have a say in ‘sporting decisions’. He, however, said the sponsors may have logistical concerns with the event just 19 weeks away.

The Olympic brand, though, will not be impacted, he feels. “When the world comes through this, the (Japan) Prime Minister had a very clearly in a statement said Japan wanted to stage a perfect Olympic Games to celebrate the world winning the war against this virus. And in that sense, that sort of celebration of humanity and coming together would make the Olympic brand even stronger,” Payne said. “The only question is do you need to ensure that the world can come together and celebrate.”

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