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Opinion The Olympics must be canceled or postponed

The Olympic flame arrives at Japan Air Self-Defense Force Matsushima Base, north of Tokyo, on Friday.
The Olympic flame arrives at Japan Air Self-Defense Force Matsushima Base, north of Tokyo, on Friday. (Eugene Hoshiko/AP)
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THE OLYMPIC flame arrived in Japan on Friday, but there was none of the traditional fanfare that normally accompanies the ceremony marking the official start for the global sporting event. Because of concerns about the spread of the novel coronavirus, the event was closed to the public, and 200 schoolchildren who had been invited were not allowed to attend. We would like to say it is good that precautions were taken, but it is completely ludicrous — no, make that completely irresponsible — that Olympic and Japanese officials are acting as if the Games can go on as the world battles what threatens to be a historic pandemic.

The Tokyo 2020 Summer Games are slated to start July 24, and that apparently has inspired some magical thinking by the International Olympic Committee and the government of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. “We are committed to the success of these games,” IOC President Thomas Bach told the New York Times after a recent meeting of the executive board in which, he made clear, the words “postponement” or “cancellation” were not mentioned. “Our basic stance,” said organizing committee chairman Yoshiro Mori, “is to proceed with our preparation and to hold a safe Olympics.”

With athletes coming from 200 countries around the world and expected spectators numbering in the millions, the Summer Games have all the makings of an incubator for the coronavirus that will lead to its further deadly spread. “You bring a lot of people together, and then you ship them back all over the world. That’s the perfect way to transmit,” warned Yvonne Maldonado, an infectious-disease specialist at Stanford University.

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Even if there is some breakthrough in combating the coronavirus in the next 4½ months — which science and health experts say is quite unlikely — there have already been disruptions in the athletic community that necessitate postponement of the Games. Global sports leagues have shut down. Olympic athletes have been unable to train. Qualification events and trials have been suspended. The South Korean national fencing team announced this week that three of its members have tested positive for the virus.

So obvious is the need to postpone or cancel the Games that even President Trump has suggested they not take place as planned this summer. That Olympic and Japanese officials refuse to recognize this reality is rooted in the money and prestige that are at stake. Japan has made massive investments in building venues and improving infrastructure, and Mr. Abe has made the Games a point of national pride. The IOC is banking on billions of dollars in broadcast rights.

Olympic officials have never been particularly forward-thinking or willing to put other interests, including those of their athletes, ahead of their bottom line. Surely, though, even they will — at some point — realize that the Games cannot go on.

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