The Summer Olympics are set to begin on July 23 in Tokyo. But as COVID-19 cases rise in Japan, some are wondering if holding the games, which were postponed last year due to the pandemic, could lead to further spread of the virus just as vaccines have started to have an impact.
The Inquirer tapped two sports journalists to debate: Should Tokyo really be hosting the Olympics right now?
Yes: Europe and U.S. have hosted large sporting events without issue.
By Dan Orlowitz
The decision announced last week to hold the majority of the Tokyo Olympics without fans was a victory for Japan’s medical officials, who had long argued that such a measure would be the only way to hold the games safely.
With that hurdle out of the way, there’s no reason the event cannot go forward — even if it will be a shadow of the grand spectacle that Japan’s capital had expected to stage.
If you’re looking for full-throated support of the Summer Games, look elsewhere. What little enthusiasm may have remained among Olympic advocates has been replaced by a grim determination to simply make it to Aug. 8′s closing ceremonies.
Though supporters may speak in hushed tones, it’s fair to note that Olympic opposition has never reached critical mass. Local polls consistently showed a three-way split between holding the games as scheduled, cancellation, or further postponement. In other words, most wanted the games to go on, disagreeing only on when.
“Athletes and members of the media have been preparing to train, compete and report in an unprecedented safety bubble.”
The discourse surrounding Tokyo 2020 has often mirrored that regarding the coronavirus itself — a volatile mix of emotion and politics, with science often struggling to be heard. Yet, Japan’s handling of the pandemic, though deserving of criticism, has produced noteworthy results. The country’s roughly 15,000 deaths are far fewer per capita than the 606,000 experienced by the United States, thanks to widespread acceptance of masks that were already a common sight during allergy and flu seasons.
Since last July, Japanese fans have attended thousands of sporting events under infection prevention measures such as bans on cheering and alcohol sales. No cluster infections have emerged among those attendees, even though vaccinations for the nation’s elderly began only in April and the general public started receiving their jabs in June.
Studies conducted at soccer and baseball stadiums gave Olympic stakeholders enough confidence to welcome ticket holders until Thursday, when the fast-spreading delta variant forced organizers to play their trump card.
Meanwhile, athletes and members of the media have been preparing to train, compete, and report in an unprecedented safety bubble that has essentially been in the works since the March 2020 announcement of the games’ postponement. The testing and safety regulations stakeholders will abide by are onerous: 14 days of bubbled quarantine; regular testing; and limited access to anywhere that isn’t an official hotel or an Olympic venue are some of the many rules outlined in massive playbooks.
If the Olympics shouldn’t go on in those circumstances, why have soccer’s European Championships — hosted across 11 countries — been allowed to contribute to a surge of cases across the continent? Why have U.S. leagues rushed to welcome back fans even as some states have struggled to contain the virus?
The answer, of course, is the vast sums of money involved up and down the chain of command, as well as the sociopolitical influence wielded by organizations like the International Olympic Committee.
If nothing else, Tokyo 2020 may end up being remembered as the wake-up call everyone needed to realize that major international sporting events have become a little too big, too cash-laden, and too corporate. Perhaps future prospective host cities and nations will look back on these stripped-down Olympics, and their budget of $15.4 billion, and realize that less can sometimes mean more. And that might have to do.
These are not the games we wanted, nor are they the games we deserved. But the finish line is just weeks away, and at this stage — like a marathon runner with blurred vision and aching feet — there is simply no turning back.
Dan Orlowitz is a Philadelphia native and a Tokyo-based sports journalist for the Japan Times. @aishiterutokyo
No: Loss of revenue is no match for loss of life.
By Rashad Grove
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to run rampant in Tokyo, the Summer Olympic Games are currently undergoing significant changes to combat the spread of the virus.
In the latest statistics, Japan has reported about 811,000 coronavirus cases and more than 14,800 deaths, according to data from the World Health Organization. Making a bad situation worse, the country’s vaccine rollout has been moving at a snail-like pace. Only about a quarter of the population has had at least one COVID-19 shot, with only around 10% of Japanese claiming fully vaccinated status.
To ensure the safety of all the athletes who will participate in the games, the organizers have made the dreaded decision to bar fans at all Olympic events in Tokyo and all areas in the vicinity, which include eight venues around the city and the newly built, 68,000-seat Japan National Stadium. The cost of soldiering on with games with empty venues is estimated to be $3 billion, the Wall Street Journal reports.
“With Tokyo under a state of emergency due to an ever-evolving public health crisis, and 83% of Japanese residents opposing holding the games, the evidence is overwhelming that the Summer Olympic Games should be canceled.”
The city of Tokyo has been under a state of emergency to halt the flow of people in order to suppress the spread of infection because the number of confirmed COVID-19 cases is on the rise. Also, the number of residents who have variant COVID-19 strains in Tokyo is growing. With no other options, Tokyo 2020 president Seiko Hashimoto made the call to place restrictions on the games.
“A very heavy judgment was made,” Hashimoto said, through a translator. “We are now faced with the COVID-19 [resurgence], so we have no other choice but to hold the Games in a limited way. … We are very sorry we are able to deliver only a limited version of the Games, but we want to have thorough operation to deliver safe and secure Games.”
With Tokyo under a state of emergency due to an ever-evolving public health crisis, and 83% of Japanese residents opposing holding the games, the evidence is overwhelming that the Summer Olympic Games should be canceled.
Since its humble beginnings as a celebration of amateur athleticism in 1896, the Olympic Games are now a multibillion-dollar entity. There are billions of dollars at stake for TV rights for the International Olympic Committee plus ad sales, for media outlets across the globe, and millions of dollars in corporate sponsorships. Not to mention profits for real estate developers, hotels, and Airbnb. While all of this takes place, the host has the honor of footing the bill for construction, operation, and infrastructure costs. Anytime that kind of money is on the table, even in a global pandemic, “the show must go on.”
The potential loss of revenue is allegedly why the games will commence in a skeletal form. But the possibilities of the loss of life and the long-lasting effects of a virus that the world is still learning about would be a greater atrocity and a dark turn for Japan for years to come. While athletes have invested years of training to represent their respective countries, delaying the Olympics for another year will not be as devastating as having thousands of people from across the globe come in contact with a virus that has killed millions worldwide.
As an avid sports fan and a lover of the Summer Olympics, I was looking forward to watching all the events that put on display “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat” on the global stage. But ushering thousands of people into a “hot spot” for COVID-19, where the stands will be empty, is not what I envision as a lifetime fan of the Summer Games.
Rashad Grove is a journalist, media personality, and pastor of First Baptist Church in Wayne. @thegroveness