A Sporting Chance: Had We Been Willing, We Could Have Moved or Delayed the Rio Olympics


Adam Houston

Publish date

July 28, 2016

by Adam R. Houston, JD, MA, LLM

It looks like the Rio Olympics are indeed going to happen; fingers crossed that all the things that could go wrong – from filthy aquatic venues, to collapsing infrastructure, to threats of terrorism – do not. The most notorious among these concerns has been the risk posed by hundreds of thousands of international visitors from over two hundred countries returning home with the unwanted souvenir of Zika virus, facilitating its global spread. In response, more than two hundred public health experts signed a letter to the World Health Organization, recommending that the Rio games be either postponed or moved to another venue.

One thing largely missing from the subsequent conversation, however, has been the actual feasibility of moving or postponing the Games. Obviously there are numerous vested interests, from the International Olympic Committee to the Brazilian government to a host of corporate sponsors, who are exceedingly reluctant to have their plans disrupted. Being unwilling, however, is not the same as being unable. Unfortunately, starting from the assumption that moving or postponing the Olympics is simply not possible frames the conversation in a way that directs it towards justifying the refusal to act, as opposed to conducting a proper assessment of the risks and benefits of doing so. The purpose of this piece is not to speculate on whether the Olympics should have been moved or delayed, whether for Zika or any other reason, something extensively debated elsewhere. It is to highlight the fact that if the decision had been made to move, postpone, or even cancel the Games, it could have been carried out.

One of the proposed options was to move the Olympics to another venue, perhaps a previous host city with the requisite infrastructure. This is precisely what happened after Denver dropped out of hosting the 1976 Winter Olympics: they were moved to Innsbruck, which had hosted in 1964. A similar thing happened with the World Cup, the world’s second biggest sporting event, in 1986; after Colombia dropped out, it went to Mexico, host of the 1970 event. It is true that in both these instances there was considerably more lead time for the move, measured in years rather than months. This has been used to underscore the logistical difficulties of moving the Rio Games on a much shorter timeline. However, expanding the historical review to a broader spectrum of major sporting events shows there is certainly precedent for moving, delaying or cancelling such an event on short notice. More to the point, this can, and has, been done over concerns about the international spread of disease.

Consider the response to Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) in 2003. The International Ice Hockey Federation cancelled the women’s ice hockey world championship entirely, just four days before it was scheduled to begin in China (indeed, after a number of the teams were already in the country). Plans also changed for numerous other events, including the world track cycling championship (moved from China to Germany), the world badminton championships(not moved from the UK, but delayed from May until late July given a high number of Asian participants), two rugby world series tournaments (cancelled in both Beijing and Singapore), and even the Asian snooker championship (postponed in Calcutta after participant numbers dwindled). That’s not counting all the various international tournaments that continued in the absence of athletes and teams who stayed home. Of all the affected events, the one most closely mirroring the Rio scenario is the 2003 FIFA Women’s World Cup, which was moved from China to the U.S. (site of the previous Cup) with just over 4 months to spare. In return, China was promised the opportunity to host the next round in 2007.

International football was similarly disrupted by the West African Ebola virus outbreak. Morocco pulled out of hosting the 2015 African Cup of Nations just two months before it was scheduled to begin, after initially expressing concerns about the disease and requesting the tournament be postponed. Despite the exceedingly short timeline, Equatorial Guinea stepped in as host – despite being previously disqualified from the tournament. The fact that a country like Equatorial Guinea was able to take over a major sporting event on such short notice – although they had co-hosted a previous tournament with Gabon – shows what can be accomplished when necessity requires.

It is worth reiterating that the original Zika letter does not suggest the Olympics be cancelled. That said, they have been cancelled before, though always for reasons of war rather than pestilence. At the same time, these cancellations have played out like postponements, albeit of varying length; every city that suffered cancellation due to war has subsequently had their moment of Olympic glory. Taking steps to formalize a short timeline for realizing this future opportunity where the event is moved rather than postponed – as was done for China with the Women’s World Cup during SARS – could make it easier for a city like Rio to stomach.


Berlin 1916 Olympic Games (predates Summer/Winter) 1936 Summer
Tokyo 1940 Summer 1964 Summer, 2020 Summer
Helsinki 1940 Summer (as initial replacement for Tokyo) 1952 Summer
Sapporo 1940 Winter 1972 Winter
London 1944 Summer 1948 Summer, 2012 Summer
Cortina d’Ampezzo 1944 Winter 1956 Winter


Lastly, as has been suggested, here’s no need to restrict alternative hosting arrangements to a single site. It could be spread among recent Olympic hosts, like London and Athens. Lest that sound too unorthodox, consider the next iteration of the UEFA Euro Cup football tournament, which will be held in thirteen cities across thirteen countries. There’s no reason an Olympic Games could not bend a similar approach to its advantage, becoming the first truly global sporting event. Ultimately, we should wish the Rio Games all the best, as it becomes apparent they are not going to being moved or postponed. But let us also not forget that it would certainly have been possible to do so.

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