Each iteration of the Olympic Games serves as a global spotlight for athletes who have spent their lives becoming the best in a chosen sport. In Tokyo next month, however, it will be doctors, nurses, lab technicians and thousands of other medical personnel who will determine the success of this international display of health and vigor.
Despite increasing vaccinations against COVID-19, host nation Japan lags well behind many rich-world peers. If the Tokyo Olympics were to be canceled in the final weeks before the July 23 opening ceremony — an increasingly unlikely prospect — the decision would have to be taken by the International Olympic Committee, following a growing band of medical professionals warning of the dangers.
So far, their pleas have fallen on deaf ears. Last month, the Tokyo Medical Practitioners Association, which represents over 6,000 doctors, asked that the IOC be convinced to cancel the games. Hospitals “have their hands full and have almost no spare capacity,” it warned.
The IOC says that “no one can be in any doubt” that thorough COVID-19 countermeasures will be in place. Faced with little choice but to proceed, the government regularly repeats the mantra that it is “working to make sure the games will be safe and secure by taking all possible measures to prevent infections.”
This week, the respected British medical journal The Lancet weighed in with an editorial on the topic, saying, “There needs to be a global conversation about the Games, and it needs to happen now.” The editors stopped short of calling for the event to be canceled, but noted the lack of attention given to the issue by major public health bodies like the World Health Organization, the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control, and the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
There is precedent for such organizations to speak up. The Lancet noted, for example, that in 2016 amid the Zika virus the CDC declared there was no public health reason to halt or delay the games in Rio de Janeiro. This time, “Global health organizations have been largely silent on whether the Games should proceed,” the Lancet said. “This silence is a deflection of responsibility.”
The Olympics are not a democracy. They’re run by a committee of more than 100 administrators and former athletes who represent the Olympic Movement rather than the nations that attend. The upside is supposed to be that political considerations take a back seat to sport.
The pandemic makes this an extraordinary era, but even so, Japan has only limited power over a risky event on its own soil because Tokyo faces massive financial penalties from the IOC should it unilaterally call off the event. The widespread opposition of Japanese people to continuing with the games — already postponed since last year — has made plowing ahead with them feel out of touch.
If any more disconnect was needed, the Group of Seven nations took the extraordinary step last weekend of standing by Japan’s unpopular Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and adding to its communique that we “reiterate our support for the holding of the Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020.”
That the G7 even had an opinion amplifies the fact that the most important bodies in international medicine have so far failed to step up. But even if they continue to avoid responsibility, as The Lancet asserts, the medical staff at the Olympics will have no such choice.
Less-than-universal vaccination coverage and the inherently intimate nature of physical competition makes the spread of COVID-19 in the games village likely. Even with a strict rulebook on COVID-19 protocols for athletes and officials to follow, backed by threats of severe penalties for any breach, local experts still see a chance of a virus emergency.
That fear is understandable. Although foreign visitors are barred from traveling to Japan for the games — after almost 1 million tickets were sold to overseas spectators for the Olympic and Paralympic events — an estimated 80,000 athletes and officials are still expected to pour into Tokyo, down from an original 180,000.
That doesn’t mean the whole thing should be called off. If anything, the world could use a large-scale morale booster. Sport is often seen as a unifier, and the Olympic opening ceremony is a global roll-call of nations (with even some non-nation contingents). After all the disruptions of last year, sport may be one of the easier “returns to normalcy” to deliver this summer.
The 2020 European Football Championship, or the Euros, is now being played a year late among 24 teams in 11 cities, with crowds generally being capped between 20% and 50% of stadium capacity to minimize the COVID-19 risk. The three-week Tour de France cycling race starts June 26, following a successful Giro d’Italia last month.
In Tokyo, spectator participation could be a major factor determining success, putting finances and public health at odds with each other. Officials, who had been leaning toward a no-crowd option as the safest, on Wednesday said that each event would likely be limited to no more than 10,000 spectators.
Organizers are on the hook for ¥118.3 billion ($1.1 billion) for advance ticket payments, the Financial Times reported Wednesday, citing a balance sheet published last week.
Although U.S. broadcaster NBCUniversal predicts that this could be the most profitable Olympics ever for the entertainment division of Comcast Corp., that calculation is at risk if the lack of raucous crowds at the first week’s swimming events, or the blue-ribbon men’s 100-meters sprint in the second, result in TV audiences losing interest.
Yet for medical personnel, eliminating spectators could mean the difference between controlling the pandemic at the doorstep or being overrun by a fresh outbreak.
The athletes will get to compete for their medals. But, especially given how little say they have in the running of this event, the health care staff should be crowned the heroes.
Tim Culpan is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist covering technology.
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