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Amid a pandemic, Tokyo Olympics is a disaster waiting to happen

South China Morning Post (Hong Kong)
Syed Munir Khasru
July 21, 2021


The decision by Japan and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to hold the summer Olympics, which starts on July 23, continues to be controversial due to the health risks posed by Covid-19 to all the participants.

The world’s best athletes are being left at the mercy of a government and an international organisation that are supposed to be looking after their well-being. Already, at least 55 people linked to the Olympics have reported positive Covid-19 tests since July 1.

Last Saturday, just a week before the opening of the Games, the Tokyo metropolitan region recorded 1,410 new Covid-19 cases, the highest single-day count since January 21. Infection numbers have been rising since late June across the country, with the health ministry reporting 3,093 new cases last Sunday.

The surge in cases has already led to the torch relay being taken off Tokyo’s streets, while Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declared yet another state of emergency in Tokyo, three weeks after it had been lifted.

One of Japan’s strategies to tackle Covid-19 during the Olympics was to vaccinate its population. The country has 100 million doses of the Pfizer-BioNTech jabs ready to be administered, but logistical bottlenecks and misallocations have disrupted the roll-out.

As a result, only 33.7 per cent of the population had received at least one dose as of July 18, according to Our World in Data. With such a low rate, the government is falling back on its promise to keep everyone safe.

According to some estimates, Japan has already spent US$35 billion to host the Games. The organisers have created a whole playbook of guidelines for the event. But, despite the rules and a pledge that 85 per cent of all athletes and officials would be vaccinated, ensuring herd immunity, there are already cracks in the system.

Some athletes have questioned the Covid-19 prevention measures at hotels, where tourists were not separated from the athletes, introducing fear of the virus spreading.

Around 11,000 athletes and 7,000 officials are expected to take part in the Games. The best-case scenario would be a safe and smooth Olympics, implying safety measures by the Japanese government and IOC have worked. Yet a simple human error could easily cause things to go south. Is the world prepared to take that chance when so much is at stake?

The challenges facing the organisers are real. The fear is that the Games could trigger an outbreak within the athletic community or even the city.

An Olympic Covid-19 outbreak would not only test the limits of Japan’s health care system but could also possibly incubate a new Olympic variant. As the tens of thousands of athletes and others attempt to head home, any new variant could pose a global threat.

When the world is still struggling to overcome a pandemic that has already led to 4.1 million deaths and more than 191 million infections, and with the bulk of the world population yet to be vaccinated, is this the time for celebration and showcasing?

The top medal-winning nation of the last Olympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016 was the US, which today is the most severely affected country by the coronavirus, with more than 608,000 reported deaths, according to Our World in Data.

As stated in the Olympic Charter, one of the roles of the IOC is “to encourage and support measures relating to the medical care and health of athletes”. By going ahead with the Tokyo Games, is the IOC not violating its own charter?

The World Health Organization cannot avoid responsibility either, should an outbreak occur, for it told the IOC that there was “no case” for cancelling or relocating the Tokyo Olympics over the coronavirus outbreak.

How can Japan and IOC be so oblivious to the potential hazards facing some of the world’s most talented athletes?

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