July 23, 2018 – When the International Olympic Committee (IOC) approved the calendar for the 339 events across 33 sports for the 2020 Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, the schedule remained undecided for just one sport: swimming.
The organizing committee for the Tokyo Games and the Japan Swimming Federation (JASF) were hoping for the final events to be sometime in the evening or later, out of consideration for participating swimmers’ physical conditions. The IOC, on the other hand, insisted the events must take place in the morning — which aligned with prime time on major television networks in the U.S.
A long negotiation was expected to settle the difference. But on July 19, the Federation Internationale de Natation (FINA), the world body of national swimming associations, announced on its official website, “On Tokyo 2020, FINA agreed with conducting the Swimming finals in the morning.”
Surprised by the abrupt move, the JASF and Tokyo organizing committee officials, who had evaluated FINA’s posture as neutral or sympathetic to Japan, rushed to collect information, saying that the announcement was “just FINA’s position.”
But John Coates, chairman of the IOC’s Coordination Committee for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, replied to Mainichi Shimbun inquiry by email that the FINA statement was in fact final. A Japanese government official commented in a dry voice, “They must have settled on this before. It was completely fixed.”
The sudden turnaround is symbolic of the reality of the games. Money from television networks has considerable sway on how the international athletic gathering is managed. The dispute over the competition schedule was settled in just such a fashion.
The schedule for the games is decided with the involvement of the organizing committee, the IOC, international sports federations such as FINA and the Olympic Broadcasting Services (OBS), which produces video materials for worldwide broadcasts. Established by the IOC in 2001, the OBS has been providing footage since the 2008 Beijing Olympics. The body represents the interests of broadcasters around the world in negotiations with organizing committees.
Naturally, U.S. broadcasters paying huge sums cannot be ignored. NBC Universal won the broadcasting rights for the United States for 10 games — from Sochi in 2014 through to the 2032 summer games — by paying a total of 12 billion dollars, or some 1.32 trillion yen.
During the Pyeongchang Winter Olympics earlier this year, popular figure skating competitions were set to start around 10 a.m. so that they could be broadcast live in the continental U.S. Many players failed to make their jumps, as they struggled to physically adjust to the time slot. The jumping portion of the Nordic combined event began around 9:30 p.m. for broadcasting in Europe, where the sport is popular. The athletes had to fight freezing temperatures.
The organizing committee presented a vision that the 2020 Tokyo Games “aims to deliver an event where every athlete can realize their best performance and achieve their personal best.” But meeting the goal of “athletes first” is no easy task. Richard Pound, chair of the OBS board of directors, asserted that the competition schedule was optimized to maximize the number of television viewers.
Meanwhile, late on the night of July 18, Hidemasa Nakamura, head of broadcasting affairs at the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee, was busy negotiating with the IOC over the scheduling arrangement for swimming competitions.
“Scheduling doesn’t just go the way we say,” said a grim-faced Nakamura. “We have to find an overall balance.”
The OBS did accept some of the requests from the organizing committee. One example is gymnastics, which will be in the evening or later. During the 2008 Beijing Olympics, the final events for the sport began in the morning, because it was popular in the United States. Another case is wrestling, which was moved from the first half of the Tokyo Games to the second half, as demanded by the organizing committee, so that sports where Japan is expected to win medals will be spread out during the 17-day games from July 24 through Aug. 9, thereby maintaining the domestic public’s interest until the end.
A source close to the organizing committee commented, “OBS had priorities (concerning the scheduling issues), and they were pretty firm on swimming.”
OBS has exerted substantial influence on the preparation for the Tokyo 2020 Games. Its power first emerged over the timing of the new national stadium’s completion. The original plan aimed for spring 2020. But the IOC requested an earlier date, and it was moved up to the end of November 2019, making the construction schedule very tight. The change was requested because the OBS had said it would need more time for preparation, including time for installing broadcasting equipment.
Tough negotiations still remain to determine the duration of use for Olympic venues. The IOC originally demanded 11 months for all venues. Now, talks are underway for each venue, but one official at a local government hosting a venue confided, “The OBS has a very strong influence. The duration of use cannot be shortened unless the OBS agrees.”
In the case of Makuhari Messe in Chiba Prefecture, near Tokyo, which will host three events categories, including wrestling, managed to compress the duration to five months after negotiations. But it still means that the facility can hardly host other money-making events during a major holiday season from late April through early May, and the Chiba Prefectural Government is seeking to shorten the period even further.
The venues also include Sapporo Dome and Yokohama Stadium, both of which are home to professional baseball teams. If those facilities have to be closed while they are used for Olympic purposes, that will mean a loss of revenue from official baseball games. A source linked to the Tokyo Games warned that it could be a “big problem” if the OBS continued to insist on the use of those venues for long periods of time.
There is no question that Olympic footage, which is broadcast live worldwide and viewed on social media continuously, has come to play a very important role in promoting the event. That reality was to be factored into the continuing tough negotiations between the OBS and the organizing committee, which is trying to reflect the wishes of communities hosting the games two years from now.