There is a swirl of controversy surrounding holding the Olympics in Japan this year. The track and field events start July 29th with the men’s and women’s marathon on August 6 & 7 (EST). Should they be held?
The arguments against it include (1) adverse public opinion in Japan; (2) the games becoming a Covid super-spreader; (3) severe restrictions on spectating — suggesting these games are for TV only. I’d like to probe each of these arguments.
For the first, I lived in Colorado in 1972 when there was a vote against hosting the 1976 Winter Olympics in Denver (and the surrounds) after they had been awarded. Although outspent 5:1 by pro-event advocates, 60% of Coloradans voted no, resulting in the games being held in Innsbruck, Austria. It was a hot topic, fueled by an anti-growth sentiment. Also, were concerns that much of cost of staging the Olympics was covered by taxpayers. Forward to 1984, when L.A. said it would not foot the bill, which led to newfound reliance on sponsorship that has continued unabated. There are also equity issues. In both Atlanta (1996) and Rio (2000) many lower income people were displaced to make way for Olympic facilities. I lived in Boston when controversy peaked about whether to bid for the 2024 summer Olympics. The effort failed – there were valid concerns about whether an already congested Boston could handle the influx. Fast-forward to Japan 2021, and the biggest concern is Covid, though some recent polls are showing a majority of Japanese are OK with the games being held. So, in terms of public opinion and without discounting the important issues raised over the years, there has been ongoing controversy. It seems to be part of the process.
The second argument has clearly fueled public opinion. With less than 20% of Japan vaccinated, which seems rather puzzling, there is concern the invasion of athletes from around the world will bring Covid with them. However, a July 20 article in Forbes estimated over 85% of athletes and their handlers are vaccinated. Also, international travel guidelines require masks on airlines and public transportation. And in the Olympic Village, there are severe restrictions on movement, such that the general population is unlikely to be in contact with the athletes. Others have suggested the Games be delayed until next year. But with the surge in cases and new variants, it may be wishful thinking Covid will be under better wraps next year. In any event, this argument doesn’t see to hold up.
The third argument suggests athletes need the applause and support of crowds to perform at their best. Looking back at the 2020 baseball, football, and basketball seasons, where action was held mostly in bubbles or empty stadiums (with cardboard standups of people in the stands and piped in crowd noise – how bizarre was all of that!), most of the athletes did just fine. When competitors are in your face or by your side, that’s who you pay attention to. If virtually no-one is in the stadium on the last lap of the 5,000 or 10,000 meter run, yes it could make a difference for some. But with an Olympic medal on the line and knowing that many millions are watching on TV, that argument is diffused. The economics of events has long been based on TV revenue and sponsorships. Nothing changed there.
So, I don’t see a case for cancelling the Olympics. I suggest it’s time to celebrate the Games and let them be played. If an athlete doesn’t want to participate, that is their choice. But seeing that 90%+ of eligible athletes will be in Japan suggests otherwise. These are people who have devoted large parts of their lives to be on that stage. It’s time to draw the curtain.
So let the Games begin and then end with the men’s Marathon on August 8th (or the 7th in the U.S. time zones)!