Ten weeks before the start of the Summer Olympics, Tokyo remains under a state of emergency, 60% of the Japanese public does not want the games to go ahead as scheduled and only about 3% of the population has been vaccinated against COVID-19.

Yet the message from the International Olympic Committee, local organizers and the Japanese government has been consistent — it’s full speed ahead to the opening ceremony on July 23.

Their stance might appear counterintuitive to those still struggling with the daily deaths and hardship caused by the pandemic, but there has been a noticeable lack of dissent from sports community.

That is in contrast to last year, when the voices of athletes and sports officials were at the forefront of the groundswell of opinion that led to the games being delayed by one year.

IOC President Thomas Bach has made it clear another postponement is not an option, leaving cancellation as the only other alternative.

Cancellation, according to Olympic swimming gold medalist Rebecca Adlington, would be “devastating” for athletes.

“The athletes dedicate their lives to something that only happens every four years, it’s now been five and if it got canceled, (they) will have to wait another three,” the Briton said.

“That’s thousands of athletes that will miss out on the opportunity to represent their country and win medals. It’s been five years of hard work, pushing their body to the limit.”

IOC data shows around 80% of athletes only appear in one Olympics during their careers — which in some sports will be over in the eight years between the 2016 Rio Games and the 2024 gathering in Paris.

Athletes have apparently not been deterred by the conditions they will likely compete under in Tokyo, where the threat of the Olympics turning into a “superspreader” event means isolation, regular COVID-19 testing and possibly no crowds.

Medical officers wearing protective suits watch an athletics test event at National Stadium on Sunday. | REUTERS
Medical officers wearing protective suits watch an athletics test event at National Stadium on Sunday. | REUTERS

Fans based outside of Japan have already been banned and a decision on domestic crowds is expected in June. There were no spectators when Sebastian Coe, the World Athletics President and a former Olympic champion, witnessed a dry run of the health protocols at a test event in Tokyo last weekend.

“I speak to the athletes all the time,” he said.

“The vast majority of athletes … are understanding that it will not be the type of games they’ve experienced before … but they still know they would rather be here than sit out the dance. It’s important for them.”

World champion sprinter Noah Lyles, who is hoping to compete at his first Olympics, said he was not overly concerned about his own health.

“I got vaccinated pretty early,” the American said.

“Now that the vaccine is a lot more accessible to people in the world, it gives me more security that going into the Olympics, it will be safer and we won’t have too many issues.

“Of course everyone is taking those extra precautions to make sure we don’t have to deal with it.”

Tennis players Naomi Osaka and Kei Nishikori voiced concerns about the games last weekend, urging “discussion” over the potential impact of over 10,000 athletes descending on their country.

Tennis is one of the few sports where an Olympic medal is not the most prestigious prize in the game. It’s the less high-profile athletes who have the most to lose from a cancellation.

British climber Shauna Coxsey, whose sport is scheduled to make its debut in Tokyo, said her desire to compete at the games only intensified after the postponement.

“The wait has made people more apprehensive but in a good way, more people are longing to go and get involved,” she said.

“I think the togetherness of the Olympics and the fact that it breaks down so many boundaries and is a beacon of hope in some regard, with the delay it has heightened the feeling about what the games means.”

Clark Laidlaw, New Zealand’s men’s rugby sevens coach, said that, while he understood the reservations some have, he thinks holding the games could be a ray of light in dark times.

“I genuinely think if it is safe, and Japan thinks it’s safe, then it’s a real opportunity for people to inspire others who are in a really tough situation,” he told Reuters.

American academic Jules Boykoff called for the cancellation of the games in an opinion piece for the New York Times on Tuesday.

“The situation is crude but clear: Olympic organizers are not willing to sacrifice their profits for public health,” he wrote.

It is a familiar criticism of the IOC, which receives billions of dollars from TV rights and sponsorships for the games, but one wholly rejected by IOC Vice President John Coates.

“If we were doing that, we would have pushed ahead with them last year. We didn’t,” the Australian Olympic Committee (AOC) president said last weekend.

“I don’t want these kids to miss the one opportunity they have in their lifetime. We’re doing it so these kids can fulfill their dreams.”

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