Clouds over the Tokyo Olympics this summer (July 23 to August 8) continue to grow darker amid a fresh surge in Covid cases in Japan and declining public support for the event there. What was supposed to be the biggest sporting extravaganza of the calendar has already been shorn of glitz and glamour. The Olympic torch relay has been scaled down with several prefectures such as Hyogo, Okayama and Hiroshima cancelling their legs of the relay on public roads. Meanwhile, almost 50 Japanese cities have lost their role as hosts or training bases for foreign athletes in the run-up to the Games over fears of Covid risk.
As things stand, the Games will be restricted to a Tokyo bubble into which athletes will be directly airdropped. Of course, Japanese authorities continue to insist that their planned protocols for the Games are sufficient to ensure safety of the athletes and the Japanese public. Playbooks released for the event outline a plethora of restrictions on everyone associated with the Games. Athletes will be required to restrict their movements only between the Games village and their venues, undergo Covid tests every day, alter meal timings at catering halls and even limit interactions with teammates. International spectators have already been barred while a decision on Japanese fans attending will only be taken in June.
Actually, with an opinion poll conducted earlier this month showing that almost 60% of respondents want the Games cancelled altogether, it is quite likely that should the mega event go ahead athletes will be competing in mostly empty stadiums. Plus, several top international athletes are expressing doubts about their participation. Spanish tennis ace Rafael Nadal has said he is uncertain about booking a flight to Tokyo, a sentiment echoed by American tennis star Serena Williams. Even Japanese athletes are speaking out. From Naomi Osaka and Kei Nishikori to two-time Olympic swimmer Yayoi Matsumoto, many are questioning the logic of persisting with the Games when the larger Japanese public is grappling with Covid-related challenges.
Then there are the hurdles that international athletes might face in reaching Tokyo itself. Given the travel restrictions, many participants like those from India may have to chart a circuitous route to reach Japan. That’s certainly not ideal for high-performance athletes who have dedicated their lives to winning Olympic laurels and map out their preparation process years in advance. In fact, the US this week raised its travel advisory for Japan, warning its citizens not to travel to the country because of the current Covid situation.
Besides, even if they make it to Tokyo, there are still the unknowns like what might happen if athletes test Covid positive during the Games. Will all participants competing in the event be forced to isolate? Will infected athletes be replaced and if so how will the replacement process work? What happens if a test returns a false positive and robs an athlete of a possible Olympic medal? After all, managing thousands of athletes in an Olympic village in the middle of a pandemic is a Herculean task. A single slip-up can prove to be catastrophic.
This is something that our very own IPL found out recently when despite the best efforts at creating and maintaining bio-bubbles for cricketers positive cases surfaced, leading to a suspension of the whole tournament. And IPL is a minnow compared to the scale and complexity of hosting the Olympics.
Finally, even Japanese doctors and healthcare workers have begun to push back against hosting the Olympics. In Osaka where a surge in Covid cases has overwhelmed hospital facilities, doctors point to the circulation of virus variants and how quickly they can lead to a system collapse. Taken together, the Games in Tokyo will be dull at best and a Covid nightmare at worst. Japan has invested a lot in hosting the Olympics and was prepared to endure the pain of rescheduling the Games by a year. However, Covid has created too many uncertainties and risks. And while athletes do make huge sacrifices to reach the Olympic stage, the Tokyo Games have begun to acquire a synthetic feel.
Having the Olympics when the world is yet to deliver vaccines to the majority and get Covid under control reeks of insensitivity. True, Japan has made a commitment to the International Olympic Committee. But this is simply beyond sports. People’s lives are at stake here. Cancelling the Olympics in these extraordinary circumstances won’t be inappropriate.
Views expressed above are the author’s own.
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