Tokyo's Olympics start in 50 days. Why pressure to scrap them is cresting

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Fifty days from Thursday, if IOC president Thomas Bach tunes out the flak, the Olympic cauldron will be lit at Japan National Stadium, belatedly opening Tokyo's pandemic Summer Games.

There's an urgent argument that these rescheduled Olympics shouldn't begin on July 23. Half of the United States and Canada has received at least one COVID-19 vaccine dose, but the world is still mired in the health crisis that postponed the 2020 competition for a full year. The virus that's killed more than 3.5 million people globally is infecting 3,000 people per day in Japan, where fewer than 10% of the population has been jabbed.

Pressure to delay the games again, or to scrap them entirely, is cresting in the host country and worldwide. The chairman of one Japanese doctors union was characteristically grave, warning recently that the event could produce its own COVID-19 variant if athletes and officials from more than 200 countries spread the disease back at home. The IOC, unmoved, contends that its health and safety plan is sufficiently robust.

“Because of the pandemic, we all know, unfortunately, the athletes’ experience will be very different," Bach told a virtual crowd of potential Olympians last week, according to Reuters. "But what is important is the competitions can and will take place in a safe way."

Olympic torchbearers. Carl Court / Getty Images

As relay torchbearers carry the Olympic flame toward Tokyo, this is what you ought to know about the calls to cancel the games and the IOC's desire to stage them anyway.

The basics

Originally, an estimated 11,091 athletes were set to congregate in Tokyo on July 24, 2020, four-and-a-half months after the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. In March 2020, the IOC and Tokyo organizers pushed the games to summer 2021, expressing hope that at that distant date, the Olympic flame would serve to light "the end of the tunnel."

This July wasn't late enough to outlast the crisis. Some Japanese hospitals are overrun, and the country's prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, recently prolonged a state of emergency through June 20 that limits shopping and dining hours in Tokyo. Olympic organizers haven't decided yet if domestic spectators will attend the games, though it's been established that foreign fans won't be there. (Same goes for the Paralympics, which are scheduled to start Aug. 24.)

This much about Tokyo 2020 remains the same: 33 sports are on the docket, baseball and softball competitions are back (but won't return for Paris 2024), and several events are debuting at the Olympics. Those first-timers include karate, skateboarding, surfing, and 3x3 basketball.

An Olympic 3x3 qualifying game. Xinhua News Agency / Getty Images

Some Olympic lineups are still weeks away from being finalized. Team USA's gymnastics and track-and-field trials are set to conclude June 27. Another high-profile example is men's basketball; last-chance qualifying tournaments run June 29 to July 4, during the back half of the NBA playoffs, in British Columbia, Canada; Croatia; Lithuania; and Serbia.

The IOC's COVID-19 "playbooks" detail the health protocols that'll be in place in Tokyo. Athletes and officials have to test negative twice in four days before they depart, and they have to quarantine for three days upon arrival. At the games, COVID-19 tests will be conducted daily and temperatures checked at venue doors. Masks should be worn everywhere; physical distancing is to be maintained. Visiting non-Olympic sites is a no-go.

Getting vaccinated beforehand, if possible, is encouraged but not mandated. Bach has said he expects 80% of Olympians will be vaccinated, though his basis for that assertion isn't clear, and as the Australian epidemiologist Michael Toole noted at the Conversation, some Olympic countries have yet to vaccinate any of their citizens.

Call it off, Bach

Dissenters ranging from medical experts to four-fifths of the Japanese public have aligned behind the belief that the Olympics shouldn't happen. Speaking to CNN recently, Rakuten CEO Hiroshi Mikitani said hosting the games this summer would amount to a "suicide mission." In a BBC interview, Japanese tennis superstar Naomi Osaka acknowledged the tension between her desire to compete and our present reality.

"Of course my immediate thought is that I want to play in the Olympics," Osaka said. "But as a human, I would say we're in a pandemic. And if people aren't healthy, and if they're not feeling safe, then it's definitely a really big cause for concern."

Naomi Osaka. TPN / Getty Images

Much of the host country agrees. Polling released by the Asahi Shimbun newspaper two weeks ago found 43% of Japanese support canceling the Olympics, while a further 40% want them postponed again. (That combined total is way up from the 69% polled in April who didn't want to start as scheduled.) Asahi Shimbun, a Tokyo 2020 sponsor, embraced the cause itself last week, publishing an editorial that urged Suga to pull the plug.

The Tokyo Medical Practitioners Association has asked the same of Suga and event organizers: "Japan will hold a heavy responsibility if the Olympics and Paralympics work to worsen the pandemic, increasing the number of those who must suffer and die,” the group wrote in an open letter. Indeed, Japan Doctors Union chairman Naoto Ueyama said last week, the Olympics would constitute the most "dangerous gathering of people" worldwide since the pandemic started.

“Most health workers say even thinking about the Olympics is just ridiculous,” Kentaro Iwata, an infectious disease expert at Japan's Kobe University, recently told The Washington Post.

Iwata added, “How the hell can you speak of a sports event gathering so many spectators, staff, volunteers, nurses, and doctors? Who could enjoy the games in this situation?”

Because Tokyo's host-city contract absolves the IOC of liability if the games aren't held, and because the deal empowers the IOC to nix the event for safety reasons, the decision ultimately is Bach's to make. His organization's stance is clear. In May, IOC executive John Coates said the games would begin July 23 even if Japan's state of emergency remains in place. Coates said the World Health Organization has assured the IOC that its medical protocols "are satisfactory and will ensure a safe and secure games in terms of health," per the Associated Press.

Thomas Bach and Seiko Hashimoto, president of Tokyo 2020's organizing committee. Franck Robichon / AFP / Getty Images

Not everyone shares that opinion of the IOC's health planning. Writing in the New England Journal of Medicine last week, four American public health experts faulted the IOC's protocols for their lack of scientific rigor. Among other shortcomings, the experts argue, the playbooks don't recognize that masks and temperature checks aren't infallible safeguards against the virus; don't acknowledge that the risk of transmission spikes indoors; and don't "adequately protect" the thousands of support personnel who'll be on site in Tokyo.

In his piece for The Conversation, Toole outlined the joyless, best-case turn of events: Athletes leave dormitory isolation long enough to compete in barren, noiseless stadiums. Olympic scholar and author Jules Boykoff summarized the worst-case scenario for The New York Times' opinion section: "Pressing ahead with the Olympics risks drinking poison to quench our thirst for sport."

The IOC's rea$oning

"And yet, the Olympic steamroller rumbles forward," Boykoff wrote. "There are three main reasons: money, money, and money."

Suffice to say, there's a lot of dough at stake. Selling broadcast rights comprises about three-quarters of the IOC's revenue, and its TV partners are set to shell out up to $3 billion if the Olympics go ahead. Meanwhile, the yearlong pandemic delay forced Tokyo organizers to budget $2.5 billion in added expenses. Independent auditors have asserted that Tokyo 2020's official budget - which now totals $15.4 billion, most of it publicly funded - severely undercounts what the games ultimately will cost.

Yoshihide Suga. Behrouz Mehri / AFP / Getty Images

Suga has been prime minister since September 2020, and he's set to stand for re-election this fall as the Japanese economy trends toward possible recession. Japan's GDP declined in the January-to-March quarter at an annual pace of 5.1%, and unemployment rose nationwide in April for the first time in six months. Economists have floated the concern that scrapping the games would hinder recovery.

That view, however, isn't universal. Last week, in a report that mapped out different Olympic scenarios, Japan's Nomura Research Institute estimated that staging the games without spectators would be $1.3 billion less profitable than if domestic fans attend, per The Japan Times. Canceling the games would cost Japan more than $16 billion - but if the Olympics fuel transmission and a new state of emergency is imposed, that could be even pricier. Nomura projected Japan's current emergency declaration was set to cost the economy more than $17 billion, and that was before Suga extended it well into June.

"The economic benefit of the (Olympics) isn't that big at this stage," said Takahide Kiuchi, Nomura Research's executive economist, via Bloomberg. "If going ahead with the games raises the infection risk, that will have a lot of downsides economically."

The broader context

On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared COVID-19 a pandemic. Rudy Gobert's positive coronavirus test halted the NBA season that night, and major competitions the world over promptly stopped playing, too.

Tokyo 2020 was pretty much the lone holdout, betraying a belief that the Olympics somehow were exceptional. On March 16, Shinzo Abe, Japan's prime minister at the time, said the games should proceed to prove "that the human race will conquer the new coronavirus." It took eight more days for the IOC to relent and decide the event could wait a year.

The Olympic rings in Tokyo. Philip Fong / AFP / Getty Images

Previously, world war was the only crisis deemed dire enough to cancel the Olympics, as happened in 1916, 1940, and 1944. The 2020 Games were the very first to be postponed. Pushing ahead is the IOC's default approach. This is how columnist Red Smith, writing for The New York Times in September 1972, characterized IOC president Avery Brundage's response to the Munich massacre, which halted that summer's games for 34 hours:

This time surely, some thought, they would cover the sandbox and put the blocks aside. But no. “The Games must go on,” said Avery Brundage, high priest of the playground, and 80,000 listeners burst into applause. The occasion was yesterday's memorial service for 11 members of Israel's Olympic delegation murdered by Palestinian terrorists. It was more like a pep rally.

For the IOC's critics, there are plenty of reasons to knock how the committee does business, ranging from the host cities the IOC selects to the way it exploits them.

Human rights advocates, Mitt Romney, and a substantial share of Canadians support boycotting 2022's Winter Games in Beijing, citing China's campaign to intern and sterilize Uyghur Muslims and the country's suppression of Hong Kong democracy protests. Last year, University of Oxford researchers found that modern Olympics systematically blow billions of dollars over budget - a veritable "blank check" that host cities are obliged to pay in full - and that these overruns are bound to get more and more extreme.

"(T)he IOC has no incentive to curb cost overruns, but quite the opposite, as the IOC focuses on revenues, from which their profits derive," the researchers wrote. "The host, on the other hand, has no choice but to spend more, whenever needed, whether they like it or not."

For all its warts, the Olympics also are a source of joy; maybe they're the respite the world needs now. The New England Journal of Medicine authors affirmed this as they urged the WHO to advocate for stronger Tokyo health controls. "(T)he Olympic Games are one of the few events that could connect us at a time of global disconnect," those experts wrote, adding, "We rally around the torch because we recognize the value of the things that connect us over the value of the things that separate us."

To Ueyama, though, the pandemic represents a crossroads for the Olympic movement. At a news conference in Tokyo last week, the physician and doctors union chairman described the doomsday scenario he foresees: After mutations of the coronavirus converge in Japan in July, a new strain emerges, circulates worldwide, and gets named after the Tokyo Games.

"Which would be a huge tragedy," Ueyama said, according to Reuters, "and something which would be the target of criticism, even for 100 years.”

Nick Faris is a features writer at theScore.

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Tokyo's Olympics start in 50 days. Why pressure to scrap them is cresting
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