One of the most brazen, hubris-over-humanity cash grabs in modern sports history is preparing to open in a country where only about 16 percent of the population is fully vaccinated, where 83 percent of citizens say they want the Games canceled or again rescheduled, and where even the emperor has expressed concerns about the Games spreading the coronavirus.
The International Olympic Committee gets the gold for greed, NBC Universal earns silver and Japanese Olympic organizers win bronze. Their prioritization of financial windfall over a public health crisis will be an enduring storyline of these pandemic-scarred Games.
Some say that carrying on with these Games is about the athletes, who trained and sacrificed and waited to have their chance to compete. I mean no disrespect to the athletes when I say it’s not about them. It’s about the people in their hermetically sealed Olympic bubble who view coronavirus infection and death outside their venues as merely an inconvenient part of corporate reality.
NBCUniversal paid $7.5 billion to extend its U.S. Olympics media rights until 2032. NBCUniversal is the IOC’s golden goose, its largest single source of income. The money the network recoups in ratings and advertising dollars cannot be deferred further. Tokyo can’t lose another dime, rising infection rates from the delta variant be damned.
Never mind, apparently, that the Tokyo Medical Practitioners Association pleaded in May for cancellation, warning that there is neither hospital capacity nor the medical professionals necessary should an outbreak occur during a colossal multinational event.
Governments of towns hosting events outside Tokyo have no hospital beds to spare and refuse to set aside facilities for athletes when they are needed for locals. A change.org petition titled “Cancel the Tokyo Olympics to protect our lives” has more than 450,000 signatures. And Tokyo registered 950 new infections Saturday, the 21st straight day that infections were higher than a week before.
Yet in IOC/Japan bubble world, the peasants don’t count; only the powerful do.
The Games will take place “at any cost,” Seiko Hashimoto, president of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Committee, has said, as if she were Churchill and this were 1941.
It’s sadly ironic the last Games in Tokyo held such political and global significance. In 1964, Japan was opening up to the world again after its World War II defeat. Emperor Hirohito, never prosecuted for war crimes, stood and applauded the American Billy Mills’s stunning upset in the 10,000 meters at Tokyo Stadium, where the Japanese people welcomed the world.
Contrast that with the upcoming Games, which are to be held without spectators in a nod to the continued covid threat.
The Olympics-or-bust aura pervading these Games feels like teenagers getting ready for prom at a hotel that happens to be on fire. Instead of the adults in charge taking away the car keys, in this scenario the IOC, NBC and Japanese organizers are driving people to the inferno.
Having had the privilege of covering seven Olympiads, I know that the cliche about sports bringing all walks of life together for the greater good is true at the Olympics.
I’ve seen the third man on the podium in Mexico City openly weep for his countrywoman — an Aboriginal Australian — as she won gold in Sydney in 2000. I’ve seen an Afghan woman sprinting in a hijab, defying the Taliban, miraculously making it to London to compete in the 100-meter dash. I’ve interviewed ER physicians who treated shrapnel victims after a bomb exploded in Atlanta’s Centennial Park in 1996. Mostly I’ve seen an affirmation of life and love of country that reminds me of why I went into this business.
The athletes who make it to Tokyo deserve an extra badge of courage. They rearranged their lives for two years; hurdled over medical clearances, canceled flights, shifting living arrangements, and the maddening feeling of never knowing if or when they will compete. And their reward? Not a single mother, father or sibling in sight to celebrate or commiserate with them in the most seminal moment of their athletic lives. For all but a few in venues outside of Tokyo, there will be no howling fans, no faces painted in their nation’s colors, to root them home that last 50 meters in the pool or on the track.
Canceling has never made sense, of course.
The proper thing would have been to move everything back an additional year and have one two-year Olympic cycle so that Tokyo 2020 became Tokyo 2022, leaving Paris 2024 and LA28 intact. This would reward older athletes who waited two years to compete and ensure the wunderkinds of not missing out on their athletic primes between Rio 2016 and Paris 2024.
But the IOC, network heads and Japanese officials are focused on income. And when they weighed those billions against the possibility of residents and athletes contracting covid and much of the host country wishing they’d pick real-life ethics over professional gain, humanity never stood a chance.