How the IOC Could Improve Its Crisis Response

Today (March 24, 2020) after much speculation, the International Olympic Committee announced a postponement of the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo. The IOC released a joint statement with the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee recapping a conference call held between the president of the IOC, Thomas Bach and the prime minister of Japan, Abe Shinzo.

According to the statement, both parties acknowledged the “worldwide concern regarding the COVID-19 pandemic” and the impact it would have for everyone preparing for the games. They agreed that the games would be rescheduled to a “date beyond 2020, but not later than summer 2021 to safeguard the health of the athletes, everybody involved in the Olympic Games and the international community.”

This is not the first time the Olympics have been entangled in a crisis (Rio 2016 dealt with Zika, poor environmental conditions and bad behavior of athletes, and the Olympics as a whole have battled the criticism of extended periods of silence regarding doping scandals and sexual abuse allegations). However, this is the first time the modern Olympic Games will be postponed and not cancelled, as they were during the World Wars, and its a decision many have been waiting for since the coronavirus pandemic started to spread.

Where the Olympics Went Wrong

Admittedly, postponing the Games could not have been an easy decision for anyone involved. The impact it will have on everyone involved is not forgotten. Athletes, whose training schedules will have to be readjusted, may rule out some of those who were most promising -- those who may not be able to return for 2021 based on schooling,  jobs, lost sponsorships or family.

Economically, the impact to Japan and its citizens cannot be ignored, as billions were pumped into the economy to create jobs, venues and tourism opportunities. A loss of advertising dollars surrounding television contracts and sponsorships and programmatic advertising will ripple throughout the industry.

Ben Fischer, NFL and Olympics reporter at Sports Business Journal, said decisions often take awhile to come down because of the massive membership and connections of the IOC.

“The IOC is often in a difficult position because of how many different stakeholders and partners they have,” Fischer said. “They hold all the cards ultimately, but you can see why they wouldn't want to say things about Tokyo 2020 without having the Japanese government fully on board.”

And yet, the IOC left a lot of people guessing over the past month. According to USA Today, even as the virus escalated, Bach encouraged athletes to continue training and traveling for qualifying meets, even as the environment became more dangerous. On March 3, IOC spokesperson Mark Adams said there had been no discussion of a deadline for a final decision on the Olympics because "we've (already) made a decision" to not postpone.

“Had they said "we don't yet believe we have to make this decision, and we still hold out hope we can proceed. But we are working on alternative plans," they would have gotten more benefit of the doubt,” Fischer said.

Life changes pretty quickly.

Within two weeks, the virus spread exponentially around the globe, bringing modern countries such as Italy, Spain and even the United States to a standstill. No crisis communication or strategy seemed to be in place from the IOC. Now, 21 days later, a decision and statement has finally been made. Was it too late? Has its reputation been damaged by not acknowledging the seriousness of the situation?

We will have to wait until 2021 to see.

What Could Be Improved

For years, the IOC has shrouded itself in poorly timed responses to crisis and scandal. And it’s not entirely clear why. Shying away from a crisis never helps a situation, as people are looking for facts and answers.

There are definitely ways the IOC can improve its communications process. First on the list is timeliness. Yes, you should always take the time to craft a statement before distributing to the public. However, when the public waits, rumors and resentment pile up, allowing a situation to get out of control with misinformation. Even if you have nothing yet to say, assure the public in a statement that you are working on a process.

Second on the list: Distribute facts. Do not hide and act as everything is ok, particularly when it is not. The public will respect authority that treats them as adults and human beings. They can handle the truth. The best example of that right now are the masses gathering to watch New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo every day at 11 a.m. for an organized and forthcoming press conference. Cuomo does not sugarcoat the COVID-19 situation. Instead, he provides facts and allows the public to process them; this is earning the respect of an entire nation.

Last, create unified communication. The statements coming from various IOC and Tokyo Organizing Committee members do not display a unified front. IOC member Dick Pound  yesterday said the Olympics would be postponed, almost a day ahead of the actual announcement. Prime Minister Abe admitted more than 24 hours earlier that the event might be postponed. Athletes expressed their displeasure with the communications and process all over social media, and created their own unified front. USA Swimming and Gymnastics Team Canada, along many others, released statements regarding their own decisions to pull out of the Olympic Games.

"The IOC made a critical error by continuing to tell athletes until very recently that they should continue to prepare as if the Games were happening as scheduled," Fischer said. "That put athletes in Europe and North America in the position of choosing between following the law and training. That led to the groundswell of athlete complaints that ultimately forced their hand."

And even though the Games have been postponed, there is still the possibility, depending on the length of the coronavirus crisis that they could be cancelled altogether. The IOC should be prepared for continuous crisis response for everyone impacted.

This article is part of PRNEWS' daily COVID-19 coverage, click here to see the latest updates.