What Happens, Legally, When the Olympics are Postponed or Cancelled

It’s more than medals at stake

Friday, April 17, 2020

The Olympics have only been cancelled three times since 1896, and only due to war, according to Time. In the midst of COVID-19 lockdowns, they’re at least being rescheduled, with the Olympic Summer Games in Tokyo now planned for the summer of 2021.

But as the general counsels from three of the United States National Governing Bodies can attest—USA Swimming, USA Track & Field and the U.S. Equestrian Federation—there’s a great deal of legal wrangling to sort in the aftermath of the decision.

Bills need to be paid, qualifying criteria must be redrafted, calendars reconfigured, sponsors soothed, contracts renegotiated, grievances aired, and potential lawsuits settled. All this needs to happen with less money in revenue streams than ever before.

“This is an unprecedented situation,” says Sonja Keating, general counsel for the U.S. Equestrian Federation. “But the bottom line is that the health and safety of our athletes and their equine partners is paramount.”

The effect on athletes

To understand the ripple effects, first consider the pathway to the Olympic games, or any major sporting event, she says.

It starts with picking a date. From there, procedures for team selection are developed and published. Then, qualifying and selection events are scheduled, all in accordance with the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act, which ensures athletes have equal opportunity to qualify for a team spot.

The logistics for Olympic Trials falls on NGBs, or National Governing Bodies, as well as the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee, which book everything from hotels to officials who run the qualifying events. Local organizing committees also help out.

In each instance, the timing of events must give athletes—and horses in the case of equine sports—adequate time to reach peak physical fitness.

In this way, many smaller competitions often must happen before the Olympics, but with many of those delayed or cancelled, some athletes haven’t yet attempted to qualify. Further complicating matters, training facilities are closed, making it difficult if not impossible for athletes to continue training as they would.

Possibly, qualifying criteria will need to be rewritten, a major undertaking.

“The question,” Keating says, “becomes how long can the sport be at a standstill, and still allow its athletes to safely and adequately prepare and compete?”

Scheduling matters

In terms of scheduling, USA Track & Field was hit particularly hard, according to Norman Wain, it’s general counsel and chief of business and legal affairs.

That’s because the new date for the Olympics in Tokyo collides with the United States’ plans to host its first-ever World Championship in the sport of track and field in Eugene, Oregon, in 2021.

“Moving a sports property, like the summer Olympic Games, has a significant impact on the entire international sports world,” he says. “Major sporting events require years of planning and coordinating in order to successfully execute them. Athletes, coaches, agents, sponsors, networks, local organizing committees are all working hard because a lot is at stake.”

In addition to the Olympic Games, international federations have their own world championships, which are also big properties. For example, the FIFA World Cup is one of the biggest sporting events in the world.

“Think of all the sports involved in an Olympic Games,” Wain says. “Those sports’ world championships are on a cycle, and that cycle gets significantly impacted by the postponement of the Olympic Games. It’s not exactly like changing dinner plans.”

According to Wain, as of mid-April, USA Track & Field was working with World Athletics, the international federation that governs the sport of track and field, to sort impacts of those date changes, but he says the extent of the ramifications is hard to fathom.

Vendor contracts

That is, if the Olympics or any large events happen at all. According to a report by Journal of Science, social distancing may be required until 2022.

And that poses a dilemma for the governing bodies. Like businesses, they need money to operate, much of it generated through sponsorship of events, as well as membership fees.

“We’ve been having discussions with our partners and negotiating both extensions and discounted values,” says Lucinda McRoberts, general counsel of USA Swimming, who’s hiring a paralegal, in part, to help with the logistics.

And the governing bodies themselves, like USA Swimming, are also trying to defer payments or recoup deposits. Airfare, hotel stays, and other practicalities of travel are all being scrutinized or renegotiated.

Behind the scenes

“There’s no playbook, no blanket amendment,” says McRoberts, who’s under a stay-at-home order in Colorado. She hopes her team can return to the office sometime in May. She expects swimmers may be out of the pools for months.

Wain’s team is running through a variety of scenarios, as well. The key, they all say, is having a flexible plan and erring on the side of safety.

“Nothing in law school really prepares you for this. The whole world is watching, waiting and judging,” Wain says. “Our mission and commitment is to promote safe engagement in the sport and to make decisions based in the best interest of all athletes. We are doing our part from an administrative perspective for the benefit of all.”

For the latest stories on how the legal community is responding to COVID-19, please follow Vanguard’s dedicated LinkedIn page. The stories are hosted on Vanguard’s blog


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