Editor’s Note: For another viewpoint, see Point: Olympic Dream or COVID-19 Nightmare?
COVID-19 cases are rising, vaccinations are low, and most of the host country had wanted to cancel the event. Yet, the Games should go on.
The 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics were delayed until July 23, 2021, due to the pandemic. Although the flame is now lit, the rescheduled Games still face continued headwinds.
More than 80 percent of Japanese, fearing a super-spreader event, wanted the Olympics canceled. Only 15 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. The country had a surge in cases during May that subsided, but small upticks in new cases in the Tokyo area — approximately 900 new cases per day in a city of 10 million — prompted Japanese authorities to declare a state of emergency.
Japan had earlier barred foreign spectators from attending the Games and limited attendance to no more than 50 percent capacity by domestic spectators. More than 3.5 million Japanese fans bought tickets. Now the government, in concert with Olympic officials, announced that no spectators will be allowed into any Tokyo athletic venue. The total ban means that organizers will lose $800 million in ticket sales. So far, the billions in TV revenues are safe but would be imperiled if the Games are prematurely ended.
More than just money is at stake, though. Over the years, the Olympics have been an important symbol of peaceful international competition and cooperation. Holding the Olympics is an opportunity to demonstrate that the pandemic is largely behind us and that life can safely return to normal. There are plenty of reasons to believe it can be done.
The NBA “bubble” — where the basketball league sequestered players and officials at Disney’s Orlando resorts for three months last year to play the final games of the season and the playoffs — showed that sporting events could be safely conducted in an era before vaccines were available. Mitigation measures included daily testing, social distancing, mask-wearing, and contact tracing. No COVID-19 cases were reported in the bubble.
Similar mitigation measures are in effect in Tokyo. In addition, in contrast to the NBA bubble, most of the Olympic athletes have been vaccinated, which substantially lowers the possibility of viral transmission in the Olympic Village.
Japan’s earlier strategy of allowing limited domestic attendance would likely be safe. NFL and NCAA games held with limited attendance this past football season did not increase the spread of COVID-19. Completely banning spectators is likely overkill, but it guarantees there will be no disease transmission.
While Japanese vaccination efforts have lagged behind those of other developed nations, the pace of vaccinations has recently surged. Japanese authorities initiated a drive to vaccinate the country’s 36 million people over age 65 by August. That age group is far and away the most vulnerable to severe COVID-19 disease and death, accounting for more than 80 percent of COVID-19 deaths. COVID-19 represents a far less dangerous threat to younger people, especially if they do not have complicating medical co-morbidities. Vaccinating the elderly and convincing people with medical conditions to steer clear of public events will, independent of mitigation measures in place at the Olympics, curb COVID-19 infections and complications.
After a year and a half of sacrifice and medical and economic hardship, it is time to look forward. The Tokyo Olympics is being safely conducted and will be an important symbol of human resilience.