But as with so many other things, covid-19 has upended even the planet’s ultimate sporting event. For fans, there is the confusion of wanting to cheer on the Games — and not knowing whether it’s safe for them to proceed.
This week, instead of looking forward to elaborate celebrations of the Opening Ceremonies, people the world over are watching news reports with bated breath. On Tuesday, the head of Tokyo’s Olympic organizing committee, Toshiro Muto, refused to rule out a last-minute cancellation as coronavirus cases spike. We’re all hoping that these covid-restricted Games don’t turn into a superspreader event — and a public-health nightmare.
The news from Japan so far is hardly encouraging. More than 90 people affiliated with the Games have tested positive, including U.S. tennis phenom Coco Gauff, and Washington Wizards star Bradley Beal will miss the Games after entering coronavirus protocols. Tokyo is operating in a state of emergency, and spectators have been barred from Olympic venues as officials try to restrict vulnerability to the virus. Even with cascading fireworks, the Opening Ceremonies on Friday were muted as organizers struggled to find the right tone for an athletic event likely to be remembered more for its pandemic environment than who medals.
Much has been written about the financial interest in these Games — the billions spent for TV rights; the lost revenue from spectators; the advertising (and potential endorsement) revenue at risk if there is a delay on top of last year’s postponement. And polls have long shown that majorities of the Japanese people favor postponing again or canceling.
What does all this mean for the athletes? My local favorites — five track and field Olympians from the University of Kansas — will be abiding by rules listed in a three-inch-thick manual that KU track coach Stanley Redwine says is just a new way of doing things.
“There is not going to be any outside mingling; we are only restricted to go in, compete and leave,” Redwine, who is an assistant coach on the U.S. track and field team, said at a news conference June 30.
“I am just excited that we are able to have the Games,” he said. “I understand covid is real, people are losing their lives, and so I am excited that we are able to have the Games and let these athletes do what they do best.”
Are these Games what’s best for any of us?
Yes, the athletes will compete, but will the feats that defy explanation fall somehow flat without the electricity of cheering crowds? Will choreographed moments still become iconic, as at the 1996 Atlanta Games, when heavyweight boxing champ Muhammad Ali, while suffering from Parkinson’s disease, lit the Olympic flame? Can viewers safe at home cheer with joy knowing that these athletes are isolated, competing without fans or family to support them at their biggest — or lowest — moments, and fearing they may catch the virus?
And that’s for those who made it to Japan. Apart from the virus-related exits, pandemic travel mayhem prevented some athletes who qualified from being able to go.
None of this is to suggest that sports can’t be played amid a pandemic. They can. The NBA bubbles are examples of how teams and support staff, and the journalists who cover it all, can safely isolate, compete and report on the games. But those players isolated for nearly 80 days, much longer than the span of these Summer Games. The NBA bubble consisted of 22 of its 30 teams, comprising hundreds of people, whereas the Olympics will host more than 11,000 competitors, coaches and staff from around the world.
Will we look back on these Games after the delta variant threat has receded and see them as Exhibit A in what not to do amid a pandemic?
I fondly remember the Sarajevo Olympics of 1984, not so much for it being the first Winter Games held in a socialist state, or for how Jayne Torvill and Christopher Dean dazzled in ice dancing, but for the many hours watching and eagerly anticipating the birth of my daughter. There’s a joy in cheering on fellow countrymen, upstarts and surprise winners, and appreciating their love of sport.
Watching athletes do what they do best, for the love of the sport, is integral to the Games. Right now, the Olympic show is going on. I’ll wear crimson and blue when my local favorites hit the track. I won’t be deterred by the 14-hour time difference. And I’ll be praying that all of the athletes are safe and that their Olympic dreams don’t turn into pandemic nightmares.