Opinion: Tokyo was picked as the ‘safe’ choice for the Olympics. Here’s how everything changed

Seemingly like clockwork, the months leading up to an Olympic Games breed crisis headlines, which typically involve things like how the host city isn’t ready or how none of the locals actually want the Games to happen and often add some kind of scandal within the International Olympic Committee (IOC) for good measure.

Some problems are ultimately fixable: For the Melbourne Games in 1956, Australia’s refusal to lift its tough quarantine rules for equestrian events meant that horses and riders competed in Stockholm in June, while the rest of the competition took place in November. Other problems are part and parcel of their global context, like the international debate about whether to boycott Berlin in 1936 after the Nazi Party’s rise to power.
In more recent history, the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi had some doozies — environmental violations, building a snowboarding venue on “Red Hill” (the site of an infamous massacre), a 2013 Russian anti-gay measure that sparked international outcry, the imprisonment of Pussy Riot for singing a song about Vladimir Putin in a Moscow cathedral — among many others.

And remember Zika? It was the virus many predicted would bring the 2016 Rio Olympics to a close before they even began, considered a threat to athletes and spectators alike.

Covid-19 to Zika: Hold my drink. For Tokyo 2020, as it is still called despite its unprecedented postponement, the IOC has estimated that 80% of the athletes in the Olympic Village will be vaccinated, and Japan’s Covid rates, which are currently declining after a surge in May caused extreme lockdowns, have been far lower than those in the United States. But still, a mere 2-3% of the Japanese population are vaccinated, although vaccination rates are finally ramping up.
Regardless, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention declared a Level 4 warning on May 24 that states “travelers should avoid all travel to Japan” and included the fully vaccinated in its notice. The Japanese government for its part has forbidden international spectators and left unanswered the question of whether or not locals will be able to grab a seat and watch competition.
Tokyo 2020 or 2021 (call it what you will) will be, no doubt, an Olympics like no other; they are as important as they are damaged. And it isn’t just Covid. Back in February, Yoshiro Mori, president of the Tokyo organizing committee, resigned after a series of his sexist remarks, such as his claim that women speak too much at meetings, came to light. At the 50 days out mark last Thursday, some 10,000 volunteers — a critical workforce for any Olympics — had dropped out, citing reasons connected to the virus, both directly and indirectly, including fear of getting sick, economic hardship, travel difficulties and so on.

It wasn’t supposed to be this way for Tokyo.

Tokyo won’t be the first Olympics touched by worldwide plague. In 1920, Antwerp hosted an Olympics designed to bring the world together after World War I, with the Olympic rings flag flying for the first time. It also took place on the heels of the 1918 influenza pandemic. One of the legendary stories from that Olympics was 14-year-old American diver Aileen Riggin, who won a gold medal after she took up swimming as part of her recovery from the virus.
But the two pandemics, Olympic historian Bill Mallon, a surgeon by day, told me recently, present “two very different situations — the Spanish flu came and went very fast because it was so deadly, and it burned itself out. So it didn’t really affect Antwerp to any degree.”

Covid-19, by contrast, is far from extinguished. Much of the world is still figuring out vaccination acquisition and distribution or reeling from the devastation — human, economic, psychological — the virus has wrought. Like all viruses, the coronavirus pays no mind to national boundaries, and does not seem to care that the world could do with a feel-good sporting event right about now, one that brings thousands of athletes from around the world together.

So while Covid looks to be in a decline, the bottom line is that it is still with us. Come July, tens of thousands of visitors will take residence in Japan, including athletes, media, coaches and officials like IOC President Thomas Bach, who canceled a May trip to Japan because of, well, Covid.

But the time to question whether or not Tokyo should happen has vanished. The Games are going to happen, despite CDC and State Department warnings in the US, and the fact that the host country’s vaccination rates continue at a global low.

This reality leaves spectators with a few options regarding the impending Olympic Games.

First, we can focus on what athletes are doing right now — because they are doing marvelous things. When Simone Biles landed her Yurchenko double pike at the US Classic, and then took her seventh national title two weeks later? Yeah, that’s thrilling stuff, and I’d be lying if I didn’t acknowledge that I really want to watch her compete in another Olympics.
I also want to see distance runner Sifan Hassan, who just shattered the world record in the 10,000 meters by more than 10 seconds, and sprinter Shelly-Ann Fraser-Pryce, who just ran the world’s fastest 100 meters since Florence Griffith-Joyner. I want to see the return of baseball — Team USA! Finally! — and softball to the Olympic fold. I want to see new Olympic events like surfing, skateboarding and sport climbing debut their own stars, like Slovenia’s powerhouse climber Janja Garnbret and Great Britain’s Sky Brown, who finished second in a skateboarding qualifier less than a year after fracturing her skull.
I want to see France’s Teddy Riner become the superstar he deserves to be, returning to defend an unprecedented third title in judo. I want to see the world’s gymnasts defy tradition and rules and compete in bodysuits instead of leotards. And I want to meet the athletes we don’t even know we love yet, the Cinderella stories, the David versus Goliath victors, the only-at-the-Olympics wonders.
Second, we can acknowledge that all of this desire and joy exists in tension with the sober reality of this moment in history, framed by Covid as well as by a reckoning with questions of health care, racism and global equity. While racial and social justice may be more visibly dominant in the American sports landscape, athletes in Tokyo will have to contend with the IOC’s doubling down on Rule 50, its lockdown on political statements. Messages sent from the victory podium — whether with bended knees or raised fists, symbols so powerfully embraced by so many athletes — are explicitly banned.

Yet overt political actions like these are not the only politics to be found. Holding these Games at all is a process shaped entirely by the politics of vaccine access and other resources, including the ability to continue to train throughout the postponement. Covid did not invent the problems, the fractures, that the world has seen. Inequities in health care and economic infrastructures existed long before the virus emerged and will remain in its aftermath. Rather, Covid has put a spotlight on these global imbalances, a spotlight that Tokyo 2020 will continue to enhance.

Finally, we can recognize that these Olympics, in a way, are telling us everything that we need to know right now about where the world is at with Covid. Just as the shutdown of the NBA proved to be America’s wakeup call at the very beginning, a soccer match in Bergamo, Italy verified the virus was airborne and the return of baseball showed what a cautious new beginning might look like, warts and all, Tokyo, for better or worse, is yet another litmus test provided by sports. And when the flame is lit in Tokyo’s Olympic Stadium on July 23, perhaps we can start to see, for both good and bad, what our next chapter will be.

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