Debate rages on the virtues of holding the Tokyo Olympics as planned amid a global pandemic. Opinions diverge, but one thing is clear: The International Olympic Committee is fortunate to have opted for Tokyo’s “safe pair of hands,” as few other cities would be capable of hosting the upcoming games.
Japan’s policy toward the COVID-19 pandemic has been one of coexistence. This approach is based on the simple countermeasures of masking, hand washing, social distancing and contact tracing. The aim is to keep infections within manageable levels. It is predicated on a broad level of public compliance.
Other nations have pursued eradication. The eradication stratagem begins with severe forms of lockdown until rates of infection reach zero. Lockdown is then reimposed when even a single positive case is detected. It is most applicable in regions or nations in which borders can be effectively controlled.
Herd immunity, which is achieved after a population has been subjected to widespread infection or inoculation, has also been deployed to combat COVID-19. Sweden famously attempted herd immunity through allowing infections to occur with limited success. For most other nations who fall within this group, no conscious decision was made. Herd immunity through inoculation became the default solution of the many nations unable to achieve coexistence or eradication.
Japan’s experience with the coexistence approach has been one of general success. Rates of fatality and infection have arguably been no worse than moderate. Adherence to masking, hygiene and social distancing remains high. The absence of hard lockdowns has enabled commerce and the country’s Olympic preparations to continue.
Japan, most importantly, has been able to exert a level of control over the rate of the virus’s spread. When surges occur, increased countermeasures confront them. The country is presently enduring its fourth wave, the preceding three having been successfully countermanded. Precedent therefore suggests that the present wave, and an additional wave brought on by the influx of thousands of athletes, officials and members of the press, can also be turned around.
In obtaining the right to host the Olympics, Tokyo successfully defeated Istanbul and Madrid in the vote. Turkey and Spain have both tried to create herd immunity through inoculation. They have both been largely unsuccessful in controlling the virus through anything other than hard lockdown. Preparation for a Madrid or Istanbul Olympics would have been disrupted to the degree where the hosting city surrendered them back to the IOC.
The six most recent Summer Olympic Games have been held in Rio de Janeiro (2016), London (2012), Beijing (2008), Athens (2004), Sydney (2000) and Atlanta (1996). How have these cities and nations fared?
The virus has ravaged Brazil. A 2021 Games could not possibly have been held. Rio de Janeiro would not be ready and the athletes would refuse to attend.
Greece has been hit less hard than many of its European neighbors, but preparations for the 2004 Games were perennially behind schedule. Even with the additional year at its disposal, a pandemic-disrupted run-up would likely have rendered Athens unready to proceed.
England (2012) and the United States (1996) have been two of the most severely injured nations but are presently turning a corner. Their aggressive inoculation policies are starting to bear fruit. The staging of a hypothetical London or Atlanta Olympics in the northern hemisphere summer of 2021, however, would assume toleration of Olympic preparation within a pandemic experience far more severe than that which was borne by the people of Japan. It is hard to imagine that level of tolerance being forthcoming.
Australia (2000) adheres to the policy of eradication. In February 2021, it staged the Australian Open tennis tournament, a major international sporting event that attracts more than 1,000 players, trainers and officials.
The necessity to preserve the zero infection target led to the tournament being delayed and some athletes enduring hard lockdown, in which they were famously filmed hitting tennis balls against mattresses within the confines of their hotel rooms. This policy would not be acceptable to the International Olympic Committee, while anything less would be rejected by an Australian public that had suffered so hard in order for the zero infection rate to be achieved.
The final of the most recent six Olympic cities is Beijing (2008). It ostensibly falls into the eradication group, although a coexistence approach may be more in line with reality as doubts remain over the data China supplies.
What is certain, however, is that the Chinese government would have put in place whatever manner of lockdown was necessary to ensure that a 2021 Games went ahead. In any event, that supposition will be tested in 2022, as Beijing is again a host city, this time for the 2022 Winter Olympics.
The athletes, officials and members of the press will import the virus into an Olympic host city during an ongoing pandemic. That can only be assumed. The host must be more than just able to run the world’s most logistically challenging sporting event. It must also be capable of dealing with an Olympic wave without locking the host city or country down, or be willing to put a post-Olympic lockdown in place. Tokyo is one of very few cities that fits that bill. Beijing, even more propitiously, is another. Great luck has bechanced the International Olympic Committee.
Paul de Vries is an Australian writer based in Japan. His book “Remembering Santayana: The Lessons Unlearnt from the War Against Japan” is available from Amazon.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.