The models and projections are clear, and the reality on the ground is brutal, from Italy to Iran to Seattle to New York. An emergency room doctor in a large hospital, an old friend, tells me that without widespread, immediate and dramatic stay-at-home measures, the coronavirus could make the 1918 flu pandemic “look like a party.” She hasn’t seen her daughter in a week or her elderly father in two, and every night as she disinfects herself, she worries about colleagues in harder-hit regions who are trying to bleach and reuse protective gear meant for single use, their masks and gowns and goggles, because their supplies are already running out.
I tell her that Thomas Bach, the IOC president, insists the Olympics should go forward because they are a “beacon of hope.” She says: “That’s beyond nonsense. The IOC should be sending a warning signal, not a beacon.”
Bach and other officials continue to intone that it’s too early to cancel or postpone because everything might be fine by July. U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee chair Susanne Lyons said in a teleconference Friday: “We don’t have to make a decision. Our Games are not next week or two weeks from now. They’re four months from now. And I think a lot may change in that time period.”
Wrong. They do need to make a decision — and make it now. The entire world is behind on this disease, lagging. Have they not been listening to Anthony S. Fauci? We don’t have time. We don’t have time for the IOC’s hemming platitudes and the USOPC’s vague blather.
Do the basic math. Things are accelerating. Cases in New York are doubling overnight. There were more than 275,000 cases worldwide as of Saturday, and while it took three months to count the first 100,000 infections, it took just 12 days to reach the 200,000 mark. Hong Kong has reported its single biggest jump in cases to date, apparently because people are still traveling. Get it? The disease is speeding up because we aren’t shutting down fast enough.
We don’t have time for athletes to keep training or meeting with coaches, risking infection or becoming asymptomatic spreaders. We don’t have time for women’s soccer players to go to events such as the one in Dallas on March 11 that may have exposed them. After which they traveled and congregated in training camps with pro teams such as the Washington Spirit, which flew to West Palm Beach, Fla., just over a week ago.
USA Swimming has rightly called for postponement because athletes should not be traveling around whole regions looking for an open pool when state governments are ordering citizens to shelter in place. USA Track & Field followed suit with similar argument: There is simply no such thing as a safe training environment right now. Athletes “are willing to push themselves to their athletic limits,” USATF chief Max Siegel said in a letter to the USOPC that recommended postponement. They need the certainty of a shutdown so they can put their focus where it should be, on “taking care of themselves and their families.”
The name of the game is to buy a little time — just a little time — so hospitals can prepare and supply or resupply or repurpose. And the way to do that is with shutdowns and social distancing. So that hospitals will not become quite so crushed four months from now and fewer patients will be sentenced to death for lack of beds and ventilators and fewer caregivers will become sick because they lack protective gear. So that other regions don’t experience what’s happening in northern Italy, where physician Marcello Natali died Wednesday after warning recently that medics had run out of latex gloves. A total of 110 doctors out of 600 in the province of Bergamo are apparently sick. “We’re acting like we have time, and we don’t,” my doctor friend says.
Shut the Games down, and shut them down now.
The IOC and its partner the USOPC are critical messengers with tremendous reach and potential for good — or bad. Messaging matters. When the NBA promptly suspended its season because of Rudy Gobert’s positive test, the audience finally understood the infection threat from a handshake or a shoulder bump was real. When the NCAA canceled March Madness too, it was a vital public service.
Anyone who soft sells the message about this pandemic at this point is practicing willful endangerment. The IOC and the USOPC have a history, unfortunately, of being soft if not false messengers. “Come on in, the water is fine,” they said of Rio de Janeiro, when they knew full well it was not. They lull the public with reassurances and professions of confidence and thereby expose it. Remember how the USOPC assured families it was giving their gymnast daughters and swimmers the best possible care, when in fact pedophiles were running amok?
The IOC’s propaganda undercuts the seriousness of what’s happening. Every time an Olympic official says there’s plenty of time and no need for drastic measures such as cancellation or postponement, it enables people to deny the deadly reality. And the spring break revelers go back to drinking, and another bar owner decides to stay open. And another nonessential gathering gathers.
The facts are plain, and the only thing preventing Olympic officials from making the right, responsible decision is the scale of the event and the size of the financial commitment. Shut it down.