Tokyo Olympics are the ultimate Covid-19 experiment

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At these Olympic Games, nothing is off the table, even the possibility of a last-minute cancellation.

Every Olympic Games has its protest crowd, loudest in the days and weeks before the Opening Ceremonies: They argue the Games are an elite, expensive endeavor, diverting attention and money from better causes. But as the Games roll on, the protest noise tends to fade, replaced by tales and images of athletic heroism.

In Rio de Janeiro (2016) the gloss of the Olympics was juxtaposed against Brazil’s wrenching poverty and the city’s millions of slum dwellers; in Beijing (2008) concern centered on the Communist regime’s human rights abuses. Ahead of the Los Angeles Games (1984), it was suggested athletes could die competing in the smog.

The difference with Tokyo 2021 is that the global nature of Covid-19 means mistakes in Japan could turn the whole world into a victim of the Olympic Games.

I now pronounce this experiment … open!


Tokyo’s first Games, in 1964, were a moment to rebuild and rebrand Japan around innovations like “bullet trains” — a modern nation rising up from the ashes of World War 2. But this time around, organizers are fending off claims they are denying the right to life of Japanese citizens.

In the final countdown to this spectator and festivity-free Games, just 1 in 5 Japanese adults support the Games going ahead as planned — and 83 percent are worried about the health impacts, they told Morning Consult.

Executives from Japanese Olympic sponsors including Toyota, Panasonic and Fujitsu will be skipping the opening ceremony, which is to be presided over by Emperor Naruhito, who himself made a rare foray into public debate in June to express concern about the Games proceeding.

Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto told reporters Tuesday: “We cannot predict what the epidemic will look like in the future.” He didn’t rule out a last-minute cancellation “should there be any surge of positive cases.”

Fewer than one-third of Japan’s citizens are vaccinated, and no one else has even thought to bring together tens of thousands of people from over 200 countries during the pandemic. There’s simply no way to know whether new variants might arise and spread.

International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach said on July 15 that there was "zero risk" of athletes passing on the virus to local residents. His first vice president, American Anita DeFrantz disagreed, telling POLITICO in an interview: “We all have to be worried. We know that this is a highly dangerous virus that’s going around, and of course the variants are even worse.”

The IOC and host city Tokyo have issued athletes a 70-page rulebook for reducing Covid risk: among the requirements are daily testing of athletes, mandatory masks, quarantining of all Covid cases, social distancing, no spectators, reduced entourages and volunteer staff, and a semi-bubble environment of heavily reduced interactions with locals.

From super-spreading to large-scale doping and athlete protest, here are the 9 disruptions to watch out for during the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics.

Local infection outbreak


The 71 Covid cases linked to the Olympics are a small percentage of the average 1,180 new cases per day in Tokyo over the past week. But every politician has their limits, and Games organizers admit they can’t predict what will happen with case numbers.

Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga’s problem is an October national election that he’s heading into with an approval rating of just 27 percent. “The situation would have to get much worse before Suga pulls the plug on the Games,” said Riley Walters, from the Hudson Institute’s Japan Center, who noted that “Covid deaths have also been very low in Japan with no sign of increase.”

Irish bookmaker Paddy Power puts the probability of the Games being cut short at 17 percent, and is offering 4/1 odds.

Covid knocks out a sport, team or individual superstar

Plenty of tennis stars have chosen to skip the Olympics rather than deal with the inconvenience of testing and isolation away from their families, including Serena Williams, Roger Federer, and Rafael Nadal. The biggest name so far to be knocked out via a positive Covid test is America’s rising tennis sensation Coco Gauff.

It’s not just a positive test that could be the problem: for an athlete caught avoiding Covid testers, “it’s like missing a dope test. You’re considered guilty until proven innocent,” said the IOC’s DeFrantz. Athletes face a ban of four years if they miss three consecutive drug tests.

Indoor body contact sports taking place in the second week of the Games — such as wrestling, karate and judo — face the highest risk of cancellation. That’s because of higher Covid risk from those activities, and because a large Covid outbreak is more likely to be identified in the second week of the Games than the first, given the additional opportunities for the virus to spread over time.

Paralympics falls victim to Olympic disaster

Olympic screw-ups are more likely to have a knock-on effect for the Paralympics, which are set to begin August 24.

That’s partially because Olympic competitions have already started, and it would likely take investigators some time to attribute a potential super-spreading event to the Games. The Olympics also have a lot more money tied to them — in the form of sponsorship, TV contracts, and the free publicity that comes from advertising your city to a global audiences of billions — meaning organizers will be hesitant to blow them up mid-way through. “It is difficult not to assume that the decision (to continue) has been driven by commercial arrangements,” Howard Wells, the founding chief executive of UK Sport, told the Times of London.

Any decision to call off the Games would be taken jointly between the IOC, the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee, the Japanese government, the Tokyo Metropolitan government, and the International Paralympic Committee.

Olympics becomes a super-spreader event — just not in Japan

While there are strict rules for Olympians entry into Japan, it’s up to each home country to set the rules for the return of their athletes. In other words, there’s no standard system for controlling whether the athletes and officials take Covid home with them. In fact, the athletes are required to leave Japan within 48 hours of of their competition ending — potentially recreating, at a global scale, the sort of super-spreader rush that occurred in March 2020 when then-President Donald Trump urged Americans home before imposing travel restrictions. The bottom line: We’ll only know in four to six weeks.

Black Lives Matter and other podium protests


Athletes are split over how far their freedom of expression should extend in Olympic arenas.

American athletes, including hammer thrower Gwen Berry, have not shied away from protesting, but face stronger restrictions in Tokyo than at home. The IOC continues to ban protests during competition and medal ceremonies under its Rule 50.

A global commission composed of Olympic athletes surveyed 3,500 of their peers, and used the results to successfully proposed that opening and closing ceremonies — but not podiums — be spaces for expression. The athlete’s oath will now include a reference to “fair play, inclusion and equality.” If athletes do break the IOC rules, it will be up to their national Olympic committee to determine the punishment.

Doping scandals and cheats

Russian athletes have been banned from competing as Team Russia — for organized and repeated doping, meaning only select Russian athletes are allowed to compete under a neutral flag. Clean athletes are becoming more outspoken about suspected or known drug cheats, including by refusing to shake hands or appear on podiums with them.

But Covid has been a drug’s cheat’s dream: a 17-month window of reduced competition testing, and in which lockdown rules have made it harder for under-resourced anti-doping agencies (the World Anti-Doping Agency, or WADA, operates on a budget of just $40 million a year) to find and test athletes.

While recent Olympics Games have seen double-digit numbers of athletes disqualified during the games for doping, the real reckoning has tended to come later. As drug-testing technology advances, some athlete Olympic samples are retested. After each of the 2008, 2012 and 2016 Games subsequent testing led to dozens of doping disqualifications.

Criminal doping prosecutions

U.S. authorities are making several major anti-doping plays in 2021. The White House has withheld $3 million intended for WADA until it sees “real progress and a path for more substantial future reforms” to the agency’s operations.

Meanwhile, a 2020 U.S. law criminalizing doping — the Rodchenkov Anti-Doping Act — will be tested for the first time during the Olympics. The law grants U.S. authorities the right to attempt to prosecute for fraud anyone involved in doping at events in which U.S. athletes compete. Corrupt administrators, officials, doctors and coaches are the target of the law. The FBI views the law as a “massive hammer.”

Nothing says Olympic spirit like a good tort.

Values clashes


Marijuana

U.S. sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson’s disqualification over her positive drug test result for marijuana use angered millions of Americans. Her marijuana use was legal where she did it, but against her sport’s rules, adding Richardson to a long list of Black Americans with smashed dreams over marijuana use, and setting off an international debate that went all the way to the White House.

Women can’t win with what they wear

The Norwegian women’s beach volleyball team was this month fined for not wearing bikini bottoms in a match against Spain, while Paralympic medalist Olivia Breen was warned over wearing track shorts that were too short. Ailish Campbell, Canada’s ambassador to the EU tweeted about the news: “I am not a fan of women being told what to do with their bodies and choice of sportswear, and getting fined for their choices. #2021not1951”

Swim caps designed for Black hair banned

When Soul Cap applied to global swimming governing body FINA for its products to be used in elite competitions — they’re designed for "thick, curly, and voluminous hair" — FINA rejected the request because they do not "follow the natural form of the head.” But what’s “natural”? It’s hard to imagine that FINA’s view isn’t linked to the sport being traditionally dominated by white athletes.

Gender politics

Two 18-year-old cisgender sprinters from Namibia, Christine Mboma and Beatrice Masilingi, have been banned from the women’s 400-meter dash due to high natural testosterone levels. According to rules recently introduced by the International Association of Athletics Federation (IAAF) — only for female middle distance running events — testosterone is used as a proxy for performance enhancement, and female competitors with elevated levels must take medication to reduce them. “I would ruin the way my body develops,” Masilingi told BBC.The IAAF says its rules “provide an objective and scientific measure to define the female category.”

Whatever happens with the Tokyo Games, the next Olympic protests will not be far away.

Momentum is growing for a boycott of the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics. A coalition representing Uyghurs, Tibetans, and residents of Hong Kong is leading the boycott campaign. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is the most senior politician to back a “diplomatic boycott” — where athletes would participate, but government leaders would not attend.

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