Tokyo Olympics shouldn't be a superspreader. Cancel them

Athletes are not required to be quarantined, nor must they be vaccinated. PHOTO: AFP

(NYTIMES) The Tokyo Olympics are in big trouble. Postponed by a year and slated to begin in July, the Games have become a political flash point in Japan, where 60 per cent of the population opposes staging them this summer and where less than 2 per cent of the population is vaccinated for Covid-19.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC), local Olympic organisers and Japan's ruling party maintain that the Games must go on, even amid pandemic conditions. As Covid-19 cases surged in Japan in January, IOC president Thomas Bach said he had "no reason whatsoever to believe that the Olympic Games in Tokyo will not open on July 23".

He added: "There is no Plan B."

For many spectators, what is most alluring about the Olympics is their audacious impracticality, with thousands of athletes from many sports coming together from around the world to compete in one place. However, during a global public health crisis, this has potentially lethal consequences.

Money, money, money

It's time to listen to science and halt the dangerous charade: The Tokyo Olympics must be cancelled. And yet, the Olympic steamroller rumbles forward. There are three main reasons: money, money and money.

And let's be clear: Most of that money trickles up, not to athletes but to those who manage, broadcast and sponsor the Games.

The IOC reportedly holds about US$1 billion (S$1.3 billion) in reserve, but the Summer Games are its go-to money spigot and not even the coronavirus has persuaded Olympic power brokers to winch it shut. The situation is crude but clear: Olympic organisers are not willing to sacrifice their profits for public health. Broadcaster money accounts for 73 per cent of the IOC's revenues, with an additional 18 per cent coming from its corporate partners.

Back in 2014, NBC Universal agreed to fork out US$7.75 billion for the exclusive rights to broadcast the six Olympics from 2022 to 2032.

Sure, the IOC and broadcasters carry insurance policies, but cancelling the Olympics means neutralising their lucrative profits. In March last year, the authorities decided to postpone the Tokyo Games for a year after athletes and sports officials worldwide questioned the wisdom of staging them during a pandemic.

The Olympics were rescheduled for July and August, the hottest months in Tokyo, but a profitable, relatively open window for TV sports programming.

Follow the science

A cavalcade of scientists and medical officials are unequivocal in their opposition. Covid-19 cases have been rising in Japan, where the medical system is already overstretched. A British Medical Journal editorial published last month demanded that Olympic plans "must be reconsidered as a matter of urgency".

"Holding Tokyo 2021 for domestic political and economic purposes - ignoring scientific and moral imperatives - is contradictory to Japan's commitment to global health and human security," it wrote.

Olympic officials in Tokyo initially estimated it would take 10,000 medical workers to staff the Games. When organisers recently requested the services of 500 more nurses, they set off a firestorm in the country, where the move is seen as a misuse of medical resources. The secretary-general of the Japan Federation of Medical Workers' Unions said: "I am extremely infuriated by the insistence of pursuing the Olympics despite the risk to patients' and nurses' health and lives."

Japanese public health experts are similarly united in opposing the Games. Dr Haruo Ozaki, chairman of the Tokyo Medical Association, said: "It is extremely difficult to hold the Games without increasing infections, both within and outside Japan." Dr Kentaro Iwata, an infectious disease specialist at Kobe University Hospital, was more blunt, saying: "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?"

The response of Olympic power brokers? Platitudes and hygiene theatre. "The Japanese people have demonstrated their perseverance throughout their history, and it's only because of this ability of the Japanese people to overcome adversity that these Olympic Games under these very difficult circumstances are possible," the IOC president said in a statement.

No quarantine, no vaccination needed

The 78,000 Olympic volunteers are reportedly being allotted a handful of cloth masks, some sanitiser and social-distancing slogans.

Last month, Olympic organisers issued guidelines designed to mitigate the dangers of Covid-19. All participants must register two negative tests before departing for Japan and will be tested daily on arrival. They are urged to refrain from using public transport and to order takeaway meals rather than dine in restaurants. But athletes are not required to be quarantined, nor must they be vaccinated. Although overseas spectators are not allowed to attend, tens of thousands of people will still enter Japan for the Games.

In theory, the IOC, local Olympic organisers and the Japanese government - which has shovelled billions in public funds into staging the Games - consult one another on decisions like cancellation and postponement. But an addendum to the Olympic host city contract states that the IOC is ultimately responsible for decisions when it comes to making "a significant change in the overall scope of the Games".

The IOC often trumpets its "athletes first" approach, insisting that input from Olympians is key to the Tokyo 2021 decision-making process. But high-profile athletes, including Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka, are wondering aloud whether the Games should proceed.

The most recent Games "playbook" for athletes and officials can't possibly assuage athletes' stress; it states that "despite all the care taken, risks and impacts may not be fully eliminated, and therefore you agree to attend the Olympic and Paralympic Games at your own risk". That sounds more like a Covid-19 waiver than an "athletes first" approach.

Olympic officials often profess that the Games are about much more than sport. If the pandemic has taught us anything, it's that some things - camaraderie, family, friends, public health - matter more than money.

The IOC has been slow to realise this, but there is still time to do the right thing. The IOC oversees the most pervasive yet least accountable sport infrastructure in the world. The group appears to have fallen under the spell of its own congenital impunity. Pressing ahead with the Olympics risks drinking poison to quench our thirst for sport. The possibility of a superspreader catastrophe is not worth it for an optional sporting spectacle. It's time to cancel the Tokyo Olympics. 

Jules Boykoff is a professor of political science at Pacific University and the author of NOlympians, and Power Games: A Political History Of The Olympics.