Each iteration of the Olympic Games serves as a global spotlight for athletes who have spent their lives becoming the best at a chosen sport. In Tokyo next month, however, it will be doctors, nurses, lab technicians and thousands of other medical staff who will determine the success of this international display of health and vigor.
Despite the increase in vaccinations against Covid-19, the host country, Japan, lags far behind many peers in the wealthy world. If the Tokyo Olympics were to be called off in the final weeks before the opening ceremony on July 23 – an increasingly unlikely prospect – the decision would have to be made by the International Olympic Committee, following a growing group health professionals warning of the dangers.
So far, their calls have fallen on deaf ears. Last month, the Tokyo Medical Practitioners Association, which represents more than 6,000 doctors, called for the IOC to be convinced to cancel the games. Hospitals “have their hands full and have almost no spare capacity,” he warned.
The IOC has said “no one can doubt” that comprehensive Covid-19 countermeasures will be in place. Faced with little choice but to continue, the government regularly repeats the mantra that it “works to ensure that games are safe and secure by taking all possible measures to prevent infections.”
This week, respected British medical journal The Lancet weighed in in an op-ed on the subject, saying: “There has to be a global conversation about the Games, and it has to happen now. The editors did not call for the event to be canceled, but noted the lack of attention given to the issue by major public health bodies like the World Health Organization, the European Center for Disease Prevention and Control and the United States Centers for Disease Control. and Prevention.
There is a precedent for such organizations to speak out. The Lancet noted, for example, that in 2016, amid the Zika virus, the CDC said there was no public health reason to stop or delay gambling in Rio de Janeiro. This time around, “global health organizations have remained largely silent on whether the Games should go ahead,” the Lancet said. “This silence is a diversion of responsibility.”
The Olympics are not a democracy. They are run by a committee of over 100 administrators and former athletes who represent the Olympic Movement rather than the nations participating in it. The advantage is that political considerations take a back seat to sport. The pandemic makes it an extraordinary era, but even so, Japan has limited power over a risky event on its own soil, as Tokyo faces massive financial sanctions from the IOC if it unilaterally cancels the event. Widespread opposition from the Japanese to the continuation of the games – already postponed from last year – has made them feel disconnected from the plowing.
If more disconnection was needed, the Group of Seven took the extraordinary decision last weekend to stand alongside the unpopular Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and add to his statement that we “reiterate our support for the hosting of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games. ”
The fact that the G-7 even had an opinion amplifies the fact that the most important organs of international medicine have so far failed to intervene. But even if they continue to shy away from liability, as The Lancet claims, Olympics medical staff will have no choice.
The less than universal vaccine coverage and the inherently intimate nature of physical competition make the spread of Covid likely in the gaming village. Even with strict regulations on Covid protocols that athletes and officials must follow, backed by threats of stiff penalties for any violations, local experts still see a chance of a viral emergency. This fear is understandable. Although foreign visitors are not allowed to travel to Japan for the games – after nearly a million tickets were sold to overseas spectators for Olympic and Paralympic events – around 80,000 athletes and officials are still expected to flock in Tokyo, against 180,000 originally.
This does not mean that everything has to be canceled. If anything, the world could use a morale booster on a large scale. Sport is often seen as a unifier, and the Olympic Opening Ceremony is a worldwide roll call of nations (with even non-national contingents). After all the disruptions of the past year, sport could be one of the easiest “returns to normal” to achieve this summer.
The 2020 European Football Championship, or Euros, is now played a year behind schedule between 24 teams in 11 cities, with crowds typically capped between 20% and 50% of stadium capacity to minimize the risk of Covid. The three-week Tour de France cycling race begins on June 26, after a successful Giro d’Italia last month.
In Tokyo, spectator participation could be a major success factor, putting finances and public health into conflict. Officials, who leaned for a crowd-free option as the safest, said on Wednesday that each event would likely be limited to a maximum of 10,000 spectators. Organizers must pay 118.3 billion yen ($ 1.1 billion) for the prepayment of the tickets, the Financial Times reported on Wednesday, citing a balance sheet released last week.
Although US broadcaster NBCUniversal predicts it could be the highest-grossing Olympics of all time for Comcast Corp.’s entertainment division, that calculation is in jeopardy if the lack of loud crowds at the swimming events of the first week, or the men’s 100-meter blue ribbon sprint in the second, causes viewers to lose interest.
Yet for medical staff, eliminating bystanders could be the difference between controlling the pandemic at the door or being invaded by a new outbreak. Athletes will be able to compete for their medals. But, especially given the few voices they have in the unfolding of this event, healthcare workers should be crowned heroes.