Should the Tokyo Olympics go Ahead?

Image Credit: Atos International via Wikimedia Commons, Flikr

Cahal McAuley takes a look at the most recent plans for the rescheduled Olympic Games and considers whether it should go ahead at all given the current state of affairs.

The summer Olympic and Paralympic games, postponed from 2020, are due to commence on July 23 in Tokyo, Japan. Despite the continued threat of Covid-19 and rising opposition from the Japanese people, the International Olympic Committee and the Japanese government have vowed that the games will go ahead as planned. Should the world’s largest sporting event take place in the midst of a global health crisis?

The consensus among the people of Tokyo is that it shouldn’t. According to a poll taken last month by Japanese news agency Kyodo, 80% of Tokyo residents expressed that they wanted the games to be postponed again or cancelled altogether. This is hardly surprising from a city that was placed into a one-month state of emergency on 7 January after recording higher numbers of Covid-19 cases than when the games were first postponed last year.

It seems in conflict with the spirit of the Olympics to force the games on a people that appear so vehemently opposed to them taking place, but the IOC and Japanese government are hoping that public opinion will swing back in favour of the games as virus cases decrease in Japan and worldwide.

With the production of vaccines increasing, it is likely that the situation will be much improved by July but even so, the pandemic will still be a very serious threat and thousands of foreign visitors flocking to Japan for the games seems unfathomable. Japan’s inoculation programme is not expected to begin until the end of this month, meaning it is unlikely that the majority of Japan’s population will be protected from Covid-19 by the start of the games. This, coupled with the fact that many of the world’s countries have also not yet started distributing shots makes it seem far-fetched that vaccines will be the key to achieving the games that the organisers are hoping for.

The Tokyo Olympics are estimated to have cost over €12 billion, the most expensive in history, meaning that there is a clear financial incentive prompting organisers to plough ahead with the games, as well as a sporting one. Although the likelihood of limited or no crowds reduces the lucrative ticket sales for the Japanese government, the money generated from the broadcasting of the games will still allow for some of the money invested to be recouped. This leaves the Japanese people to wonder if their government is prioritising saving face and minimising their losses over public health by allowing a potential super-spreader event into their nation’s capital.

Sporting events with large numbers of participants have been performed safely during the pandemic. Last month the World Men’s Handball Championship took place in Egypt with teams from 32 countries coming together in a bubble of 3,000 people.

Of course, events like this are nowhere close to the scale of the Olympics where over 11,000 athletes are due to compete from over 200 countries. Factoring in the requisite number of judges, officials, and other support staff make the Tokyo Games an event the likes of which has not been attempted during the Covid-19 pandemic.

In an effort to provide clarity on what will be expected from participants in Tokyo, the IOC, the International Paralympic Committee, and the Tokyo 2020 organising committee released the first of their playbooks last week, resources which outline the measures that will be taken to ensure as safe an Olympics as possible.

Some of these measures include the prohibiting of singing and chanting at events, mandatory testing for athletes every four days, and restricting visitors from using public transport. Breaking these rules may result in ejection from the games. Vaccines will not be mandatory as the IOC has repeatedly stated that it is not in favour of athletes getting priority.

The playbooks give us an insight into the type of Olympics we might see come July, but so far the IOC still has many questions to answer in order to reassure the Japanese public that the games can go ahead safely including whether or not spectators will be allowed to attend and what will happen to participants who return a positive test.

In theory, the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games can go ahead safely, but complete cooperation from all involved is required. The people of Tokyo need answers and progress in order to come on board with the plan and they need them quickly.

Japanese President Yoshihide Suga and his predecessor Shinzo Abe have both said that the Olympics will be a celebration of humanity’s victory over Covid-19 but with the games’ current status of being devoid of cheering, singing, and possibly spectators at all in a city that does not want to host, this sentiment is sure to ring hollow.