During his four-day trip to Tokyo earlier this week, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach likened the forthcoming Tokyo Games to “a light at the end of the tunnel.”

Successfully hosting the Olympics would serve as a symbol of humanity’s resilience in overcoming the novel coronavirus, Bach said during his first visit to the capital since the Summer Games were postponed in March for a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Organizers of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games are moving forward cautiously but confidently, and under the assumption that a vaccine and rapid testing will be available in time.

However, while preliminary test results are encouraging, experts are doubtful that a vaccine will be available and distributed equitably to the Japanese public or to the myriad athletes, spectators, organizers, trainers, stakeholders and media personnel that travel from countries that could still be dealing with active outbreaks.

Therein lies an asymmetry in the benefits of holding the Olympics versus the cost of not holding them, said Kenneth McElwain, a professor at the University of Tokyo’s Institute of Social Science.

“Having the Olympics is certainly a feel-good story,” he said. “But if the Olympics don’t happen, at a global level I suspect that there’s going to be a lot of shrugging. … In Japan it will be much darker and would trigger a relitigating of every decision the government has made.”

If the games are canceled, McElwain said, each decision made by Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, his predecessor and the central government in fighting COVID-19 would be rehashed and scrutinized anew.

“(The people) are going to blame somebody,” he said. “And I think that somebody is the Suga administration.”

So long as it’s impossible to predict what the world will look like in eight months — much less whether a vaccine will be widely available by then — proceeding with plans to host the 2020 Games during what could be an ongoing pandemic is, at best, a gamble with increasingly high stakes and a dubious pay-off.

The 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games will be 'a light at the end of the tunnel,' said Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, speaking to reporters Monday. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI
The 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games will be ‘a light at the end of the tunnel,’ said Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, speaking to reporters Monday. | RYUSEI TAKAHASHI

Olympic organizers soberly acknowledged the unpredictable and mercurial nature of the situation during a news conference Wednesday following the conclusion of a three-day project review between the IOC and the International Paralympic Committee.

It was “too early to make finite decisions in many areas,” said John Coates, chair of the IOC Coordination Commission. “Just as the situation with COVID continues to develop,” he continued, “so too does the situation on rapid testing.”

On Wednesday, organizers voiced their commitment to hold the games with spectators in attendance — “as many as possible,” Bach said — though it wasn’t specified how many would be allowed and under what circumstances.

Toshiro Muto, chief executive officer of the Tokyo Organising Committee, said that while no decisions were made during the project review, many issues were raised that warranted further discussion.

These included, among others, the formulation of a testing policy tailored to different individuals and groups in attendance at the games, contingency plans in the case of a positive test result or cluster infection and the enforcement of mandatory quarantine periods for foreign nationals upon entering the country.

Crowd capacity at 2020 venues and entry restrictions for foreign athletes and spectators will follow the guidelines put forward by the Japanese government, Muto said.

Organizers are still unsure about potential requirements and mechanisms for athletes from abroad to be vaccinated, should a vaccine be available.

In any case, Coates said, the IOC will have to delegate that responsibility to the national Olympic committees in each respective country.

During their stay in the Tokyo Olympic Village, athletes will be asked to arrive and leave as quickly as possible and discouraged from sightseeing or going out among the public, Coates said.

Christophe Dubi, the IOC’s Olympic Games Executive Director, admitted that many important decisions had yet to be made.

The IOC said it would release a report before year-end as it prepares to meet with sponsors to discuss contract renewals.

“We don’t know what the situation will be next year,” Dubi said. “But some decisions will have to be made, already, in December.”

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