Despite the coronavirus pandemic, the International Olympic Committee and Tokyo 2020 Olympic organizers insist that the Tokyo 2020 Summer Games will go on. Even with widespread cancellations in European soccer, Formula One auto racing, and professional and collegiate basketball in the United States, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe of Japan vowed, “We will overcome the spread of the infection and host the Olympics without problem, as planned.”
While sports can create an escape hatch from the grit and grind of daily life, there is no escaping the fact that the coronavirus pandemic presents an extraordinary challenge that cannot be overcome with mere platitudes and prayers. Pressing ahead with the Tokyo Games means creating a massive, potentially perilous petri dish. For the sake of global public health, the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games should be canceled.
The Olympics are not slated to commence until July 24. But the International Olympic Committee’s response to the coronavirus has not been forward-thinking. After a recent meeting of the executive board, the I.O.C.’s president, Thomas Bach, stated that the board had not even mentioned the words “postponement” or “cancellation.” But organizers have delivered mixed messages. A Tokyo 2020 executive board member suggested delaying the Games, only to backpedal and apologize, while the organizing committee chairman, Yoshiro Mori, said, “Our basic stance is to proceed with our preparation and to hold a safe Olympics.” Japan’s Olympic minister, Seiko Hashimoto, hewed to a similar script: “The I.O.C. and 2020 organizers are not at all considering canceling or postponing the Games.”
In a communiqué issued Tuesday, the I.O.C. noted that its task force overseeing the situation was considering possible “adaptations” but that the I.O.C. “remains fully committed to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020,” adding, “with more than four months to go before the Games there is no need for any drastic decisions at this stage; and any speculation at this moment would be counterproductive.”
Refusing to even consider alternatives is reckless. Measured, evidence-driven speculation is the responsible course. Epidemiologists have been clear that the coronavirus is a potentially historic pandemic. Each day, the World Health Organization reveals more countries and territories with reported cases of the virus. The W.H.O. recently declared that Europe, where many Summer Olympians live and train, is the pandemic’s epicenter. According to experts at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the pandemic could infect between 160 million and 214 million people in the United States.
With athletes and spectators coming from around the world, the Olympics could become a dystopic coronavirus hot zone. As a Stanford University infectious disease specialist, Yvonne Maldonado, put it, with the Olympics, “You bring a lot of people together, and then you ship them back all over the world: That’s the perfect way to transmit.”
But the Olympic spectacle is a powerful drug. Last week, despite the coronavirus mayhem, the Olympic torch relay commenced in Greece, where an actor dressed as a pagan priestess ignited the Olympic flame in Ancient Olympia. Within hours, however, the torch relay was canceled over public-health concerns.
And yet, Tokyo 2020 Olympic organizers contend the torch relay will proceed on schedule, starting on March 26 in Fukushima, the prefecture decimated by the triple-whammy earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown in 2011. This decision has not only raised eyebrows in light of the pandemic but also because Greenpeace has found radiation hot spots along the torch relay route.
While participants in the Olympic torch relay may be putting themselves in harm’s way, personnel at the I.O.C.’s headquarters in Lausanne, Switzerland, will not. This week, most of them began teleworking. According to the I.O.C., this measure aims “to protect the health of its staff and their families” from the coronavirus. Workers with the Tokyo torch relay are not being accorded the same precautions.
The I.O.C. has a history of pressing through catastrophe to stage the Games, adopting the mantra “the Games must go on.” In a fractious world, the Olympics symbolize international cooperation and good will. But must they in the age of coronavirus? Much remains unknown about Covid-19, and one study, forthcoming in Swiss Medical Weekly, projects the disease won’t reach its peak until winter 2020-21. Insisting that the Olympics take place while the world wobbles to the rhythms of a pandemic requires real hubris.
There are powerful interests that are keen to make sure the Tokyo 2020 Games are staged on schedule. Television broadcasters, while insured, will see profits melt away. Japanese politicians like Prime Minister Abe have sunk enormous sums of political capital into the Games. The I.O.C.’s Olympic brand could suffer damage. And there is added pressure to recoup funds after the price for the Tokyo Olympics skyrocketed from $7.3 billion at the time of the bid to more than $26 billion, according to an audit by the Japanese government. But fiscal irresponsibility does not justify exacerbating a global public-health emergency.
President Trump recently suggested that the Games should not take place this summer, although Japan’s Olympic minister immediately rebuffed postponement. Delaying the Games involves significant complications and costs. For broadcasters like NBC it means having to compete for eyeballs in a crowded sports calendar, including its own cash-cow programming like football. Postponement also adds costs to an already bloated budget for venue maintenance and the Tokyo 2020 payroll. Then there is the Olympic Village, slated to be turned into apartments, many of which have already been sold.
The Olympics have long been mired in a slow-motion crisis, with doping, athlete abuse and a dwindling number of cities keen to host. The way that Olympic power brokers have responded has been distressing. They do not deserve the benefit of the doubt.
Cancellation may appear ominous. But in reality, it would be a remarkable act of global solidarity. Pierre de Coubertin, the French aristocrat who revived the modern Olympics in the 1890s, referred to “the noble spirit of chivalry” as the foundation for sport and society. To confront the coronavirus crisis, a hefty dose of selfless chivalry is required. Amid a global pandemic, holding the Games is unconscionable. It’s time to hit the five-ring pause button and cancel the 2020 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.