In all those bids, he said, discussions of potential disruptions to the event were fairly narrow in scope: mostly natural disasters, like earthquakes or fires, and, more recently, terrorist attacks.
“I’ve never seen an Olympic organizing committee asked, ‘Are you prepared for a global pandemic?’” Burns said this week.
Now, with just under five months to go before the scheduled opening of the Summer Olympics in Tokyo on July 24, organizers in Japan and at the International Olympic Committee headquarters in Switzerland are grappling with the coronavirus outbreak, which is threatening to derail the world’s largest sporting event.
Still, as the virus has begun to spread through the country, officials in Japan have played down suggestions that plans for the Games could be altered or even canceled. At a news briefing on Wednesday, the chief cabinet secretary, Yoshihide Suga, said that preparations for the Games were proceeding “as planned,” adding that the Olympic torch would begin its journey to Japan in March according to schedule.
But sporting events in Japan and elsewhere are already being canceled, as governments try to discourage large gatherings in major cities.
Many who have procured tickets and made travel plans are now wondering whether they will have to scrap them.
People across the Olympic world have begun to ponder, then, what might happen if the coronavirus has not been brought under control before the summer.
“I’m sure somewhere within the walls of the I.O.C. headquarters there’s a big board with various scenarios on it where people are thinking about, ‘OK, what do we do in a worst-case situation?” said Dick Pound, a longtime I.O.C. member.
There are options, of course, according to people like Burns who have worked with the Olympics for decades. None are very appealing.
Moving the Games
One theoretical solution involves moving the Olympics to a different locale — perhaps a city that has recently hosted the Games, like London, or one that might be gearing up to, like Los Angeles.
It has happened with other major sports events. The 2003 Women’s World Cup was relocated from China to the United States during the outbreak of SARS.
Olympic host cities block out rooms in countless hotels. They reserve high-profile venues, generate public safety and transportation plans, and deal with a host of other logistical and legal issues years in advance, in anticipation of tens of thousands of visitors.
“Who could put on an event the size and scope of the Olympic Games even beginning today, five months out?” Pound said. “Nobody, realistically.”
There is also the question of whether it would even make sense amid a viral epidemic to have thousands of people from around the world congregate in another city and then return to their homes.
Yasuyuki Kato, professor of infectious diseases at the International University of Health and Welfare in Narita, Japan, noted that the Games could act as “a hub to disseminate the virus to other countries.”
Canceling the Games
The Olympics have been canceled outright three times — in 1916, 1940 and 1944 — during the world wars.
The prospect of a cancellation now, when so many parties have invested billions of dollars and years of labor — and have legal contracts — seems almost unthinkable.
Broadcasters have carved out huge programming blocks, and marketers have built campaigns meant to culminate in Tokyo. Athletes have trained for years to appear on that stage.
“I’ll tell you who definitely doesn’t want to cancel is NBC,” said Jules Boykoff, a professor of politics and an expert on Olympic history at Pacific University in Oregon. “They have put billions into the rights to these Olympics. There will be serious disgruntlement from those who have power. They will insist that the Games go on.”
A spokesman for NBC said, “The safety of our employees is always our top priority, but there is no impact on our preparations at this time.”
The spread of viruses can be suppressed in warmer months, and Melissa Nolan, an expert on infectious diseases at the University of South Carolina, said “most predictions estimate we’ll see a major decline by July.”
But Pound said he believed any decision to cancel or modify the Games would have to be initiated by late May.
Asked about Pound’s comments, Suga, Japan’s chief cabinet secretary, said they were “not the official view of the I.O.C.” And the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee, responding to questions from The New York Times, said that it was “not considering canceling.”
Postponing the Games
In 2001, days after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, organizers of the Ryder Cup, a team golf competition between the United States and Europe that was historically staged in odd-numbered years, decided to postpone the event for 12 months after top golfers like Tiger Woods expressed concern about flying. To accommodate the change, the Presidents Cup, a team golf competition that had been staged in even-numbered years, was also pushed back a year, to 2003.
Pushing the Games to the summer of 2021 would put them in direct conflict with world championship events in several sports, which would most likely have to be moved as well.
Holding the Games just a few months later would put them in direct competition with a host of other professional sports competitions that would not move to accommodate them. For example, while N.B.A. basketball players are available in July, they are not available in October.
With few good options, organizers could be forced to get creative.
One way to satisfy broadcasters could be to hold the events behind closed doors, a nod to the reality that most fans watch the Games on television. But it’s unclear whether public safety concerns would be addressed if thousands of athletes, coaches and staff members from around the world were still congregating in competition venues.
Or could the Olympics go on in Tokyo as planned — with, perhaps, travel from certain countries barred, screening zones in every venue and public space, and plenty of hand sanitizer and masks on hand?