The Summer Olympics, much like the athletes who participate in them, are incredibly resilient. Since 1896, the Summer Olympics have been held every four years almost without fail, surviving the Great Depression, the Cold War (despite both Soviet and U.S. boycotts in separate years), a terrorist attack and even toxic water. Only three world events have been significant enough to warrant a cancellation or delay: World War I, World War II and some virus you have probably never heard of.
Indeed, one of the many casualties of the COVID-19 pandemic last year was the Summer Olympics, which were set to be held in Tokyo, Japan. This move was devastating to many of the athletes and spectators who planned to attend this monumental event; the Olympics have played host to some of the most significant events not just in sports but in world history. Whether it is the assembly of the greatest basketball team in human history, Tommie Smith and John Carlos’ iconic protest, Jesse Owens sticking it to Hitler and the Nazis by winning four gold medals in Berlin, Usain Bolt’s utter brilliance in three consecutive Olympics, the ice rink and basketball court serving as symbolic battlefields for the Cold War or Michael Phelps winning an uncountable amount of gold medals, the Olympics have produced moments that will never be forgotten.
Aside from their cultural and political significance, the Olympics also involve a whole lot of money: Japan has already spent at least $15 billion to prepare for the Games. With this much money invested, it’s not surprising that the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics have been rescheduled for this summer. As we all know by now, if there is money at stake, the show must go on; while Japan won’t reap the full benefits of tourism that usually accompanies the Games, the IOC will still rake in plenty from TV contracts. However, considering the lingering state of the pandemic, many are not yet comfortable with such a large event being held. This has caused some tension in Japan and numerous hot takes and speculation from the rest of the world. The Japanese government has said explicitly that the Games will be held this summer, despite around 70 percent of Japanese citizens saying they do not feel comfortable with this decision.
But, we have seen that sporting events can succeed with the right protocols in place, both here in the United States and the rest of the world. The MLB, NBA, NFL, NHL, NWSL, WNBA, Premier League and even the NCAA, among others, have all operated at least somewhat successfully during the pandemic, albeit with some modifications. As I have written about too many times to count, sports at all levels can be held safely if strict enough precautions are put in place, with a bubble strategy being the most effective.
In response to the world-wide concerns, Japanese officials have released a “playbook” for the athletes that outlines all the required safety measures to mitigate spread of the virus. They include wearing a mask at all times except when eating, sleeping or competing, a required test before and after arriving in Japan, a minimum three-day quarantine, completion of a daily health screening and daily COVID-19 testing. The playbook also outlines a pseudo-bubble that the athletes are expected to comply with: no using public transportation (only “dedicated Games vehicles”), no guests allowed in the Olympic Village and athletes are not permitted to go to tourist attractions, restaurants, gyms, bars, shops or any other non-official Games venues without receiving special permission. I call this a “pseudo-bubble” because there do not seem to be any procedures in place to enforce some of these restrictions, meaning that it will be up to the athletes to hold themselves accountable and not sneak off or break other rules (much like how Vassar’s own policy of the campus “bubble” has operated since the beginning). Additionally, no international fans will be allowed to attend the Games, while rules concerning domestic fans have yet to be released.
So what’s the big idea? These restrictions are about as stringent and safety-oriented as you can get, and we have seen many sports leagues operate during the pandemic already. Yet, none of those leagues are on the international scale of the Olympics, which will have competitors from 205 different countries. All these athletes are coming from situations where case numbers, testing capabilities, vaccine access and more vary widely. Additionally, despite early success fighting the virus, Japan has struggled as of late. Japan is going through a fourth wave of infections right now, averaging over 5,000 new cases a day at the time of this writing, up from about 1,000 cases a day in early March. Possibly more concerning is the fact that only 2.5 percent of Japan’s population has received at least one dose of the vaccine, leaving them vulnerable to continued spikes in infection rates. These numbers illustrate why many Japanese citizens are having second thoughts about hosting the Games this summer, including some athletes like Naomi Osaka.
But as I mentioned before, the Japanese government along with the IOC has fully committed to moving forward with the Games this summer, so the question is not will the Games be held, but rather, should they? It is easy to understand the apprehensiveness of Japanese citizens given the numbers cited above, but the Olympics have so much cultural significance, not just as a form of pride for the host country but for the entire world. I’ll spare you the whole spiel about how the Olympics “transcend politics” (they clearly don’t, as I have already discussed), but they truly are a unique moment where the world’s countries join together for competition despite political differences. Not only are the Games a cool moment of global unity, but they are a celebration of the world and some of its most popular pastimes. These Olympics won’t have all the usual festivities we have grown accustomed to, but they will undoubtedly be a huge morale boost for the athletes, and the entire world. With reasonable and cautious protocols in place, I see no reason why the Olympics can’t happen. After all, with the whole world reeling from the events of 2020 and now 2021, it seems like everyone could use an uplifting event to look forward to.