Salt Lake Olympic officials see delay of the Tokyo Summer Games as similar to their 9/11 moment

(Rick Egan | The Salt Lake Tribune) Cindy Crane, Chair, Salt Lake City-Utah committee for the Games, says a few words, during a news conference announcing Utah's next steps towards an Olympic and Paralympic Winter Games, at the Utah State Capitol, Wednesday, Feb. 12, 2020.

Jeff Robbins remembers another time when it felt like the world screeched to a stop. It was Sept. 11, 2001, the day terrorists attacked several sites within the United States, most recognizably the Pentagon and the twin towers of the World Trade Center in New York City.

Robbins and the other members of the organizing committee for the 2002 Winter Olympics paused — like concerts, sporting events and mass transit across the country — but not for long. There was work to do. After more than seven years of intensive planning, the committee had less than five months to adjust its Games to fit into a suddenly foreign landscape.

So when Tokyo 2020 organizers wrestled last month with the fate of those Olympics in the face of the global coronavirus pandemic, ultimately postponing them a year, Robbins could sympathize. No one could have predicted this catastrophe seven years ago when the Japanese city was awarded the Games, just as no one can predict what will happen in 2030 or 2034, when the global event is expected to return to Utah. But rather than serve as a cautionary tale, Tokyo’s misfortunes have served as a reminder for local organizers: Expect the unexpected.

“I think we’ll be prepared for anything,” Robbins, a member of the newly formed Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games, said. “It is probably a lesson to say, ‘OK, you know, we really, really need to be prepared and really prepared because, you know, we had 9/11 last [Olympics]. Who would have thought?’ And you never know, 99% of the time history will prove that out, that there's never an issue like that. But if you are that 1%, it becomes a pretty big, big deal.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Jeff Robbins of the Utah Sports Commission speaks at a luncheon at Rice-Eccles Stadium during a visit to Salt Lake City on Wednesday Nov. 14, 2018.

When the International Olympic Committee, the Tokyo Organizing Committee and the city of Tokyo announced March 24 their joint decision to postpone the Summer Games until July 23-Aug. 8, 2021, it was a big deal. The 2020 Games, whenever they are held, are expected to draw 15,000 athletes, including Paralympians, and 600,000 fans to Japan. The postponement interrupted their plans as well as those of thousands more Olympic hopefuls, merchants, journalists and even other major event organizers. The 2021 World Athletics Championships, scheduled to be held in Oregon next July, have already been moved to 2022.

Whether members of the IOC and Tokyo 2020 had a contingency plan in place for something like a global pandemic is unknown. During a meeting Thursday, they said they have set a May deadline for establishing a roadmap for moving forward with the Games.

“We have been working since [March 26] to create a structure capable of overcoming these unprecedented challenges,” Tokyo 2020 President Yoshiro Mori said following the meeting, according to a news release. “We believe that today's new step is an important achievement in advancing over the coming year what we have prepared over the past five to six years. We will continue to work closely with all stakeholders to ensure the success of the Games.”

‘Adapt to lessons learned’

The cost of postponement to Japan has been estimated between $2 billion and $6 billion. Most of that cost is expected to be passed onto the Japanese taxpayers.

If something similar were to befall Utah during its next Winter Olympics, considerably less of the financial burden would likely be passed to taxpayers, according to Cindy Crane, the chairwoman of the local committee for the Games. Keeping a tight rein on expenses and preparing a rainy-day fund worked for Utah in 2002, when the local Olympic committee paid back the money it had been granted by the state legislature. The same approach is being taken for the next Games, Crane said, except the committee is expecting to rely mainly on sponsors and not ask for any money from taxpayers.

“You know, one of the smartest things you can do is adapt lessons learned,” Crane said. “We're starting with a very, very tight, conservative budget from a standpoint of this is, you know, no frills. This is about the athletes, not about a showcase. … We'll stay focused on those principles. And, you know, as our primary guide, obviously, we'll look at every avenue as far as how do we protect against these variables if they were to happen? Can we contractually protect [ourselves], you know, and those types of things.”

An Olympic exploratory committee estimated the Salt Lake City area could host its next Games for $1.3 billion. That’s a pittance compared to the cost of the Tokyo Olympics even prior to the postponement. Estimates ranged from $12.6 billion to nearly $24 billion, though Summer Games tend to be more expensive because they are larger with more events, athletes and spectators. Utah also should see some savings by using mostly the same venues as in 2002, versus Tokyo which last hosted in 1984.

The 2002 Games cost $1.9 billion. The federal government contributed an additional $400 million, including $225 million for security, following the 9/11 attack (compared to $101 million for federal security costs for the 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta).

Sixteen years after the fact, it was revealed that discussions occurred about not allowing fans, while some countries balked at sending athletes. Sound familiar? Instead, the Utah Games were the first to have the Secret Service secure every event venue, install scans and guards at every venue entrance and set up a central command center for federal, state and local law enforcement.

All of that had to be coordinated in the five months between the terrorist attacks and the opening ceremony. Robbins, who was on the Salt Lake Organizing Committee in 2002, attested it had no contingency plan for a reality shift of that magnitude. That the state pulled it off, he said, is a testament to strong leadership and communication.

“When you look at us getting through 9/11 and hosting an event in months after and all of the hard work and time and effort spent in that, that's a great example of something happening that nobody would have ever thought of,” Robbins said. “Well, it might not be the same as the virus [when it comes to] the economy and the things taking place. But, it’s certainly another example of not having a contingency plan in place for that — because nobody would ever have dreamed of it — but yet being able to audible and work on putting a contingency plan together quickly and and still doing a great job.”

A new era?

Now the local organizing committee has made a point of making contingency plans for terrorist attacks, global pandemics and disasters not yet imagined. The need feels more real after having lived it, Crane said.

“We have the benefit of enhanced contingency planning already in our minds and in our planning processes because of what we went through following 9/11,” Crane said.

Crane was not on the 2002 Olympic organizing committee but was working for one of the Games’ main sponsors, Rocky Mountain Power, where she is now CEO.

Crane said she doesn’t see the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics, nor the coronavirus, having much of an impact on Utah whenever it hosts again. The Olympics will continue on the same schedule, with Beijing’s Winter Games still slated for 2022 and Paris’ Summer Games for 2024. She is optimistic that in 10-14 years the economy will have rebounded from its current state. So far the biggest impact locally has been the postponement of a meeting the committee had scheduled for later this month with the IOC and USOPC to discuss Utah’s bid.

The possibility still exists that the Tokyo Games may be scratched altogether if a vaccine isn’t available or the coronavirus is still rampant by summer 2021. If it is, it would stand as the first non-wartime cancelation of an Olympics since the first modern Games in 1896.

Then again, the event might rise above the chaos and become the symbol of the beginning of a new era.

“We believe that the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 can stand as a beacon of hope to the world during these troubled times,” former IOC vice president John Coats said following Thursday’s meeting, “and that the Olympic flame can be the light at the end of the tunnel in which the world finds itself at present.”

It’s possible. Just ask Utah.