This summer’s Olympics in Tokyo could be an uplifting global event, a showcase of human achievement amid the hardships of the COVID-19 pandemic. It could also be a super-spreader event: either of the disease itself, or of the dangerous and premature notion that the pandemic is over.
The International Olympics Committee and Japan, the host country, have a responsibility to make sure the Games are a cause only for celebration. With so much of the world still battling the coronavirus, and its emerging variants, the Olympics must be held under the strictest safeguards — including, if necessary for some events, without fans.
Originally scheduled for last summer, the Olympics are now set to begin July 23. The fact that the Games are going ahead at all has been cause for consternation in Japan, where only 7 percent of the population has been fully vaccinated and 83 percent of respondents in a May poll wanted the Games canceled or postponed. In a controversial decision, officials ignored the advice of the government’s top medical adviser and will allow up to 10,000 domestic spectators at events.
Under the right circumstances, it’s possible to hold large sporting events safely — indeed, Japan’s baseball and soccer leagues have successfully reopened at reduced capacity. And the government has ordered Olympics spectators to wear masks, refrain from cheering, and go right home after events (without stopping at a restaurant, for instance). If followed — and good luck on that cheering ban — those rules should reduce the risk. Officials have also said they’re willing to shift gears and bar spectators completely if disease numbers increase. And to the officials’ credit, they did avoid the traditional practice of convening Olympics spectators from around the world.
Hopefully, they will consider the worldwide ramifications of such decisions and err on the side of caution. In many countries, pandemic fatigue is setting in, and compliance with public health rules seems to be waning. Beamed worldwide, images of fans at indoor Olympic events risks fueling that trend and sending the message that the pandemic is over. It’s not. Worldwide, only about 10 percent of people are fully vaccinated. Infections remain high in some parts of the world, especially South America, and, worldwide, more than 8,000 people die from COVID-19 every day. Variants remain a dangerous wild card.
Whatever the objections of the Japanese public, the Olympics are going forward. By going ahead in the midst of a pandemic, the IOC and the Japanese government are accepting two big responsibilities: They can’t let the Games be a breeding ground for the virus, and they can’t let the event itself undermine the work of public health authorities around the world who are trying to encourage responsible behavior. As a way to foster worldwide unity, the Olympics can’t be beat; right now, what the world needs is to be united around the goal of ending COVID-19.
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