Should the Olympics Be Canceled?

When the prime minister of Japan and the president of the International Olympic Committee decided last March to postpone the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo, the hope was that the pandemic would be a thing of the past by now.

But the coronavirus had other plans: With five weeks to go before the opening ceremony, cases and variants are still surging in much of the world. Public health experts have expressed grave concerns about the Games’ potential to become a global superspreader event, and a May poll found that 83 percent of the Japanese public did not want them to go forward.

The I.O.C. and Tokyo organizers have said the Games cannot be postponed again. At this point, should they just be called off? Here’s what people are saying.

The case for calling off the Games

Japan has fared much better during the pandemic than the United States — America’s per capita death rate is about 16 times that of Japan — but it has struggled recently to contain infections. The country entered a fourth wave at the end of March, and since April Tokyo and several other major cities have been in a state of emergency. In part because of a lengthy domestic approval process, Japan’s vaccination effort has also been “embarrassingly slow”, as one top Olympics official put it: Only about 15 percent of the population has received a dose.

Should the Olympics Be Canceled?
Illustration by The New York Times; photograph by Con Tanasiuk/Getty Images

Against this backdrop, hosting the Games poses a risk that many Japanese people feel is unacceptable:

  • After largely barring nonresident foreigners since the middle of last year, Japan plans to open its borders to tens of thousands of athletes, coaches, reporters and other personnel from over 200 countries and territories. While all participants will have the option of getting vaccinated, it will not be required.
  • The Games’ day-to-day operations will depend on a corps of 80,000 volunteers, only a fraction of whom have been guaranteed vaccines, despite being encouraged to take public transportation to Olympic venues. About 10,000 of these volunteers have quit, in part over safety concerns.
  • Tourists will be barred from entering the country to attend the games, but millions of people in Japan might do so at more than 40 venues in and around Tokyo.

“The present situation is nowhere close to making anyone feel safe, and that’s the unfortunate reality”, the editorial board of The Asahi Shimbun, Japan’s second-largest newspaper, wrote last month. “It may be possible to control most of the movements of athletes and Games officials. But where everyone else is concerned, the success is bound to hinge largely on their readiness to practice self-restraint”.

Many in Japan’s medical community have also called for the Games to be canceled. Because Tokyo is contractually obligated to provide medical care to Olympic personnel, organizers estimated that 10,000 medical workers will have to be diverted. “The doctors and nurses of the medical system who are being asked to respond are already at this point exhausted, and there is absolutely no extra manpower or facility for treatment”, the 6,000-member Tokyo Medical Practitioners’ Association said in an open letter last month.

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The case for letting the Games go on

The I.O.C. naturally has a vested interest in the Games going ahead — 73 percent of its revenue comes from the sale of broadcasting rights — but the costs of cancellation would prove more than financial. To some, the Games are a much-needed symbol of global solidarity, “an example that life can be normal again”, as Henry Olsen writes in The Washington Post.

Athletes stand perhaps the most to lose. “If you think about the three years and 11 months in between the Olympic Games, if you outright canceled these Olympics and made it seven years and 11 months in between Olympics, that’s the span of a lot of Olympians’ entire careers”, the sports journalist Henry Bushnell told Slate. “That’s their window to have this chance to accomplish a lifelong dream, never mind money or anything like that”.

Many public health experts also believe that the Games can be held safely. “If you could do an N.B.A. or N.H.L. season without a vaccine and have zero cases, this can be done if people actually put the resources into place to do it”, Amesh Adalja, an infectious disease specialist at Johns Hopkins University, told Vox.

  • Japan’s cases have plummeted by about 75 percent since their peak last month, and the new daily case rate in Tokyo is now comparable to New York City’s. Nationally, it’s about a fourth of the U.S. rate.
  • Japan’s vaccine drive has also finally taken off, with the number of shots administered surging from just 37,000 per day in mid-April to now over 1 million per day.
  • Most of the country’s 36 million people over 65 are expected to be fully inoculated by the end of July. That would go a long way to reducing the risks of the Games, since people over 60 account for 96 percent of Japan’s Covid deaths.

The momentum appears to be tempering the opposition of Japanese residents: In a poll released this month by Japan’s largest newspaper, the number of respondents calling for the Games to go ahead had increased to 50 percent. The rise in support came as the first athletes — a softball team from Australia, all vaccinated — arrived in Japan to stringent constraints on their movement and interactions with the public.

But some changes to the Games should still be made, experts say. A group of public health specialists argued in the New England Journal of Medicine last month that the I.O.C.’s playbooks — manuals for keeping personnel safe, designed in consultation with the World Health Organization — were insufficiently detailed and based in places on outdated science. They criticized the focus on measures like disinfecting surfaces and temperature checks, for example, and the absence of any kind of risk classification of events that accounted for aerosol transmission.

“It’s not rocket science to hold a safe Olympics”, Annie Sparrow, the lead author of the article, told The Times. “It’s basic medical science. But that’s what the I.O.C. has ignored, and I don’t know if they’re going to start paying attention now”.

Who will make the call?

Dick Pound, a senior I.O.C. official, ruffled feathers inside Japan last month when he told a Japanese magazine that the Games would take place even if Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga called for them to be canceled.

But ultimately, as Rachel Bachman and Alastair Gale explain in The Wall Street Journal, Japan is the one in control: Because the federal government isn’t a party to the host city agreement, it would be well within its rights to refuse visas for athletes or to pass a law prohibiting competitions because of Covid concerns. The I.O.C. could take the issue to court, but at the risk of severe reputational fallout.

“What would such a suit do to the I.O.C.’s reputation — forcing the Games in a stressed and distressed nation during a pandemic?” Sally Jenkins writes in The Washington Post. “The I.O.C. has no real powers, other than those temporarily granted by participant countries, and Japan owes it nothing. A cancellation would be painful — but cleansing”.

But it seems unlikely that things will get to that point. On Thursday, Suga announced that the state of emergency would be lifted in most of Japan this weekend. Half of the Japanese public thinks the Games will go ahead, and the I.O.C. recently declared itself to be in “operational delivery mode”.

“Simply put”, The Times’s Andrew Keh says, “there’s the feeling that this is too big a ship to turn around”.

Spencer Bokat-Lindell is a staff editor.

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