As coronavirus swept the globe last spring, Japan portrayed the postponement of the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics until this summer as an opportunity as well as a necessity. The delayed Games would be the light at the end of the tunnel; a celebration of humanity’s victory over Covid.
With around 100 days to go, that promise now looks not merely optimistic, but flat wrong. The Olympics are approaching amid a resurgence of the virus and the opposition of the vast majority of the host nation. Grumbles are a familiar part of the Games cycle, dispelled as momentum builds in the final weeks. But the current concerns go far beyond the usual worries about slow ticket sales or uncompleted venues.
Tokyo’s governor said last Thursday that she would ask the central government to impose new measures urgently, while Osaka, which saw a record high in cases last week, has already adopted strict new rules: its stretch of the torch relay will take place behind the closed gates of a park. More infectious strains are gaining ground, while the country’s vaccination programme is barely off the ground. The international picture is much grimmer. Brazil is recording more than 4,000 deaths a day, and India recorded more than 125,000 new cases last Wednesday alone.
No overseas spectators will be permitted, and domestic ones could yet be banned. But tens of thousands of athletes and officials, media workers and others will be descending on the Japanese capital. As things stand, there is no requirement for competitors to quarantine or be vaccinated, though they will be tested and told to follow strict rules. Concerns have grown after dozens of athletes left the supposedly Covid-safe European Indoor Championships in Poland last month with coronavirus infections. North Korea pulled out of the Olympics last week.
In January, a poll found that around 80% of people in Japan think the Games should be scrapped or postponed again. The latter is not a feasible option, both for logistical reasons and because there is little confidence that everything will look rosy in a year.
Only world wars have left gaps in the Olympic calendar; there were no Games in 1916, 1940 and 1944. Scrapping this year’s would be devastating for athletes, who in many cases might be losing their once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to compete or win. It would disappoint fans around the world too. Japan does not especially want to deliver the prestige of the first major global sporting event since the pandemic started to China, which is hosting the 2022 Winter Olympics. And with growing talk of a boycott of the Beijing event to protest at human rights abuses against the Uyghurs, the International Olympic Committee will be even more anxious to make sure that Tokyo goes ahead.
The big issue, though the Olympic movement does not care to acknowledge it, is the billions of dollars at stake. Set against that are the lives that could be lost. The head of the IOC, Thomas Bach, insists that there is no plan B (though he said that last March too). But Japan and the IOC must ask themselves whether this event can really be justified. If they decide that the Games should go ahead, they must ensure that the rules are not just communicated but enforced. Undoubtedly, the cancellation of the Games would lead to disappointment and financial losses. However, these factors must be weighed against any risk that the Olympics could make the pandemic worse.