When are the 2021 Olympics? Will they happen?

·7 min read
A general view shows the Olympic rings lit up at dusk on the Odaiba waterfront in Tokyo on May 31, 2021. (Photo by Charly TRIBALLEAU / AFP) (Photo by CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images)
The Olympic rings lit up at dusk on the Odaiba waterfront in Tokyo. (CHARLY TRIBALLEAU/AFP via Getty Images)

The Summer Olympics originally scheduled for 2020, now rescheduled for 2021, are set to begin July 23 in Tokyo.

That is, if COVID-19 doesn't torpedo them.

Here's what you need to know about the 2021 Olympics, including the likelihood that they happen at all.

Will the Olympics happen in Summer 2021?

The International Olympic Committee and Tokyo organizers have said that the Games are on.

Most Japanese people, including doctors and prominent businesspeople, believe they should be canceled or postponed again due to the pandemic. With Tokyo under a state of emergency, opposition surged along with the virus throughout May.

But case rates in Japan are declining, and although the state of emergency has been extended through June 20, IOC officials have said that even if it is not lifted before the July 23 opening ceremony, the Olympics "absolutely" would still happen. So athletes, organizers, and all involved in the Games are operating as if they'll go ahead as planned.

Could the 2021 Olympics still be canceled or postponed again?

The IOC, which "owns" the Olympics, has the authority to cancel them at any moment. But it seems committed to forging ahead, "with or without COVID." It has said there is "no Plan B."

Tokyo, which is responsible for "planning, organizing, financing and staging" the Games, has seemed more willing to consider canceling them. Tokyo, however, can't legally do that. It would likely have to unilaterally break a one-sided "host city contract" that it signed back in 2013, and pay billions of dollars in damages.

So it, too, seems to have accepted that the Games will happen. Most people in Olympic circles aren't certain, but are confident.

Where are the 2021 Olympics?

Tokyo, obviously, where the vast majority of events will take place. But there are venues spread across Japan.

Soccer matches will be played at seven different venues, including in Sapporo City in Japan's northernmost island of Hokkaido.

Baseball and softball games will be played in Tokyo as well as in Fukushima City, about four hours north.

In total, there are 42 Olympic venues. 

When do the 2021 Olympics begin and end?

The Tokyo Olympics officially begin on Friday, July 23, exactly 364 days after they were originally supposed to commence last summer. (Organizers made the decision to postpone them last March, two weeks after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic.)

The first day of competition is actually Wednesday, July 21 – soccer and softball start early. And because of the time difference, the very first event, a softball game between Australia and Japan, begins at 8 p.m. ET on Tuesday, July 20.

But the opening ceremony is Friday, July 23 at the Olympic Stadium. It begins at 8 p.m. in Tokyo. NBC will air live coverage at 7 a.m. ET. (Tokyo is 13 hours ahead of U.S. Eastern Time.)

The closing ceremony is Sunday, August 8.

How can I watch the 2021 Olympics?

NBC will have wall-to-wall coverage, as always, on its main channel and affiliates, including Spanish-language staple Telemundo. It will show some events live, and some on delay in primetime.

Every single event can be streamed live on NBCOlympics.com.

When are the must-watch Olympic events?

Simone Biles and the U.S. women's gymnastics team will go for gold in their team final at 6:45 a.m. ET on Tuesday, July 27. Biles then competes in the all-around on Thursday, July 29 at a similar time. On Sunday, Aug. 1, she'll try her stunning Yurchenko double pike in the vault final. Her other three event finals are Aug. 1 (bars), Aug. 2 (floor) and Aug. 3 (beam).

Some other notable dates at the Tokyo Games:

  • Swimming finals take place Sunday, July 25 through Sunday, Aug. 1. Finals are in the morning in Tokyo, though, meaning they'll be shown live on TV in the U.S. the night before.

  • Track and field begins Friday, July 30 and runs through the final day of competition, Sunday, Aug. 8. 

  • Basketball gold medal games are Saturday, Aug. 7 (men) and Sunday, Aug. 8 (women) at 11:30 a.m. local time – so 10:30 p.m. ET the night before.

  • The women's soccer final is Friday, Aug. 6 at 11 a.m. local time – so Thursday, Aug. 5 at 10 p.m. ET.

A full event schedule is on the Tokyo 2020 website.

Will fans be in attendance?

Foreign fans won't be allowed. (Some won't even get full refunds on tickets.) As of now, Japanese spectators will be, but organizers have said they'll announce a final decision on domestic fan attendance sometime this month.

“My guess is there will be some live spectators,” veteran IOC member Dick Pound told Yahoo Sports in May. “I don't think you're gonna have 100%, filled-to-capacity venues. But it might be 20%, 50%.”

Some in the Olympic world, however, expect empty arenas to be the ultimate compromise between organizers – who would like to salvage some ticket revenue – and broad segments of the Japanese public who would prefer the Games don't happen at all.

Why don't Japanese people want the Olympics?

The main source of Japanese resistance to the Olympics is COVID-19. The virus surged in Japan in April and early May. Per capita case counts remain low by U.S. standards, and began to subside in late May. But because only 3% of the country's population is vaccinated, there's concern that:

  • The Olympics themselves could be a three-week-long superspreader event, with tens of thousands of people from some 200 different countries, including Japan, interacting with one another on a daily basis.

  • All the mingling could introduce the virus – and, potentially, new strains of it – into the Tokyo community.

  • The Olympics could sap resources from an already-overburdened medical system.

  • Among citizens, the Olympics could lead to gatherings, lower risk perceptions and, therefore, virus spread.

Will athletes be vaccinated?

Some, perhaps most, but not all Olympics participants will be vaccinated.

The IOC has struck deals with Pfizer and China to help get vaccines to athletes. It has said that 80 percent of people in the Olympic village will be immunized. But it has offered no evidence to support that claim. It isn't mandating vaccination, nor are national Olympic committees.

The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, for example, has said that it isn't even tracking vaccination among athletes and staffers. It expects a "vast majority" of its delegation to be vaccinated, but that's in large part because vaccines have been widely available in the U.S. since April. In other countries, especially poorer countries, they aren't. As of June 1, only 11% of the global population has been vaccinated.

How will Olympic organizers prevent COVID-19 from spreading?

They'll "mitigate risk" in a variety of ways. The biggest tool in their so-called toolbox is testing. Athletes and other key participants will be tested for COVID-19 twice in the four days before departure, again upon arrival in Tokyo, and every single day while there. If anybody tests positive, they'll be removed from competition and isolated.

There'll also be restrictions on movement. Olympians won't be able to explore Tokyo. Local restaurants, bars, tourist sites and public transportation are all off limits. All involved will also be required to wear masks outside of competition, training and meals.

Organizers plan to reveal the final version of their countermeasure "playbooks" in June. Per the latest update in April, all rules will apply regardless of vaccination status.

How else will COVID-19 affect the Olympics?

Delegations will be smaller. Media access will be limited. Athletes will have to leave shortly after their competition ends, rather than stay for the duration of the Games. The atmosphere will be far less festive than usual.

And over the past 16 months, COVID-related cancellations have disrupted and altered qualification processes in many sports. At the time of postponement last March, only 57% of qualifying spots had been clinched. 

But once the athletes who do qualify arrive in Tokyo, the games themselves will be largely unaffected.

Are they the 2021 Olympics or 2020 Olympics?

Unofficially, they're whichever you choose. Officially, they're "Tokyo 2020," because before they were postponed, gobs of merchandise and intellectual property had already been developed with the "2020" branding. Rather than re-conceptualize and remake all of it – to the tune of millions of dollars – organizers will re-promote the 2020 Olympics in 2021.

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting