Tokyo’s Olympic Games go on despite COVID-19 surge

I’m not a huge follower of the Olympics. I did love watching the Summer and Winter Olympics as a kid. As I got older, though, pro and college sports have been a bigger part of my fandom. But I have followed the controversy over this year’s Olympic Games in Tokyo amid the surge in COVID-19 cases with great interest. I have always had an opinion on whether officials should have cancelled or moved the Games, but I held my opinion until I shared it in my latest newspaper column.

Athletes and team officials continue to test positive for COVID-19 before the Olympics

On Monday, gymnastics alternate Kara Eaker became yet another member of the U.S Olympic team to test positive for COVID-19, following tennis star Coco Gauff, NBA All-Star Bradley Beal and others. As of Tuesday morning, Tokyo Olympic organizers announced that 71 people accredited for the Games have tested positive. And the head of Japan’s Olympic organizing committee, Toshiro Muto, admitted that it’s still possible the coronavirus could lead to a last-minute cancellation of the entire Olympic Games.

Should the IOC have cancelled or moved the Olympic Games?

Should the International Olympic Committee and officials in Japan have seen this challenge coming and either cancelled the Games or move them?

After all, cases of the virus are surging in Japan, with over 1400 in Tokyo alone on Saturday. That’s nearly the highest number in the last six months. Only one-third of the Japanese people have received one dose of the COVID-19 vaccine, one of the lowest rates among wealthy countries, according to Reuters. No wonder 60 percent of Japanese citizens want the Games cancelled, despite IOC President Thomas Bach claiming infection protocols would leave “zero” risk of participants infecting the Japanese population.

Now with tens of thousands of athletes, staff, and family members descending on Japan for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the “bubble” organizers tried hard to create has been burst. On Sunday, officials reported the first COVID-19 case among competitors in the Olympic village in Tokyo.

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The risks of COVID-19 at the Olympics and steps to mitigate them

It’s not just the village and the event venues that present risks. It’s everything associated with the Olympics – the restaurants, hotels, public transportation and more.

Last week, the IOC released its third revision of a “playbook” for mitigating the risks. Athletes and team officials will be tested daily. Athletes will submit two negative COVID-19 tests less than 96 hours before leaving their home country and be tested again upon arrival. Their movements in Japan will be monitored by GPS tracking. And anyone who fails to comply will be warned and possibly excluded from the Games.

Officials have taken more drastic measures, so that even if the events take place, they won’t feel like any other Olympics. Fans will not be allowed to attend. The opening ceremony won’t have sponsors. Athletes will put the medals around their own necks instead of officials putting the medals on them. Handshakes and hugs will not be allowed.

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Options Olympic officials could have chosen, or could choose in the future

To answer my opening question, I believe officials should have cancelled the Games months ago. Or maybe they could have found different cities across the world to host different events. Maybe Berlin could host soccer. Orlando could hold the basketball tournament. Rome, Paris, Melbourne, and other cities with the virus reasonably better contained might have been better options.

Now that we are this close, what can Japan and the IOC do? Pushing the Games back isn’t a realistic option. If the Olympics were to get cancelled, officials insist they won’t be pushed back to 2022. The next chance for athletes to compete in the Olympics wouldn’t come until 2024. With many sports and events requiring athletes to peak at a certain age, some of the athletes would miss their one opportunity at Olympic glory.

Plus, it would be a huge financial blow to Japan. Tokyo’s Olympic stadium alone cost $1.4 billion.

It’s too late this time, but going forward, maybe the IOC looks to create permanent homes for the Summer and Winter Olympics. I’m picturing an island off the coast of Greece, the host country of the first modern Olympic Games. The IOC could use its vast financial resources from all the corporate sponsors and television deals to build permanent stadiums, arenas, hotels and training facilities. Less wealthy countries could have their athletes train there all year to prepare to compete with more well-funded nations.

Almost without question, we will see athletes test positive over the next few weeks. Let’s just hope we don’t see a large outbreak, among the athletes or the Japanese population. Our attention should be on the athletes and competitions, not on overflowing hospitals.

A modified version of this article appears as my sports medicine column in the July 20, 2021 issue of The Post and Courier.