People are traveling here, to be sure, more than 22,000 already. And so an alternate with the U.S. women’s gymnastics team tested positive upon arrival in Japan, and tennis star Coco Gauff tested positive before she departed, and two South African soccer players tested positive in the Olympic Village, and on Friday, the torch will be lit. Let the Games begin? Force the Games to begin. They are, by now, an inevitability, covid or not.
There is only one way the Pandemic Games can be staged: not by pretending the virus has been completely defeated but by dealing with it when it surfaces, surely and swiftly. This would not have been possible last summer, when there was no vaccine and the world knew less about the virus than it does now. Tokyo 2020 had to be punted to 2021, even if the signs that line the streets here still have last year’s date.
“What we’re seeing is what we expected to see, essentially,” McCloskey said Monday. That sounds casual and crass. Yet what other answer is there?
There were never going to be zero positive tests at these Games, so put aside the surprise that there are positive tests at these Games — 67 to date, five from the more than 11,000 athletes who will eventually show up. Tuesday’s Tokyo 2020 report brought nine new cases — seven among contractors working at the Games, one from a volunteer and one from an athlete.
Here’s a guess: Over the course of the Games, particularly in the first week or so, that’ll be a fairly typical daily report. (Sunday had 10 positives, Monday three.) The arrival of athletes and coaches from all over the world is more staggered than normal because of the virus. As people reach Tokyo, some will test positive. They will be isolated. Their close contacts will be monitored, tested and tested again. There are protocols in place. This is the world most of us have lived in for nearly a year-and-a-half.
“The choices we all make either increase risk or decrease risk,” Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, the World Health Organization’s director general, told the IOC members at their meeting here Wednesday. “They never eliminate it completely. The mark of success in the next fortnight is not zero cases. The success is isolating cases and making sure it does not spread. There is no such thing as zero risk.”
Look, it’s fair to question the IOC’s motivations — not only in foisting the Olympics on Japan but in everything else it does. The organization has a history of corruption that’s all but ingrained, and there is insincerity in almost all of its utterings. Why, just Tuesday, Thomas Bach, the IOC president, said at a meeting of the group here: “Solidarity is at the heart of everything we do. It fuels us.”
If that were true, then his organization would have listened to the will of the Japanese people, who — overwhelmingly and repeatedly in polling — have expressed their opposition to these Olympics.
In the same breath, Bach said, “The IOC never abandons the athletes.” That’s laughable, too, and the Games to come will be monitored not only for who wins and how but for whether the medalists will use this forum to protest — pick a cause — human rights abuses worldwide or police brutality back home or whatever they deem important.
The IOC frowns upon such displays of dissent and too often doesn’t give athletes a proper seat at the table as it shapes what the Games are and what they will become. Plus, as my colleague Sally Jenkins so correctly pointed out, forcing athletes to sign liability waivers absolving the IOC of responsibility should they come down with covid is, indeed, abandoning them. Over a decade, Bach has trained us to treat every word out of his mouth with some combination of skepticism and disbelief.
But if the Games are to be held — and they will be held — the hand-wringing about the positive tests in the days leading up to the Opening Ceremonies rings as melodramatic. Yes, covid is a potentially serious disease that can still be fatal, even as doctors have gotten better at treating it. Cases in Japan are on the rise, and the Japanese government has declared a state of emergency that will last throughout the Olympics. That reads rather dramatically and indeed should warrant caution.
Still, Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto said Tuesday that the positivity rate for people arriving at Tokyo’s airports since July 1 is about 0.1 percent. Plus, Japan’s current virus rates would be the envy of so many countries, both developed and not. According to The Washington Post’s coronavirus tracker, there are 17 new cases per 100,000 Japanese people over the past seven days — less than 2½ per day. By contrast, the United States’ rolling average is more than four times that.
Or take another example: Great Britain. There, the rate is 480 new cases per 100,000 people — a real struggle, another surge. Yet this month, the country hosted Wimbledon, the British Open and the European soccer tournament. All were held with fans. The latter concluded with some 60,000 people at London’s Wembley Stadium. Maybe that was unwise or unsafe.
But with fans banned from the Olympics by Japanese authorities, the opportunities for the virus to roar through the Games are more limited. Odds are that any disruption in these Olympics more likely hinges on who tests positive rather than on how many test positive. Sure, the South Africa men’s soccer team’s opener against Japan would be in jeopardy if the virus spread through that team. But the soccer tournament won’t be canceled because of it.
All four major American sports pulled off versions of their seasons in 2020, when the pandemic was new and the virus was killing and bubbles were deemed necessary. All four will do the same in 2021 — without the bubbles and with fans in the stands. Last week, six New York Yankees tested positive for the coronavirus following the all-star break, and their Thursday game against Boston was postponed. But the season was never in jeopardy. On Friday, they opened the second half.
Maybe we should be having a debate about whether the prevalence of the highly transmissible delta variant means restrictions on travel and gathering should be more stringent than they are at the moment. And we can wonder whether the Olympic bubble is truly that, sealed and sacrosanct, because athletes from one corner of the globe are living in close quarters with those from another.
But what covid demands of the athletes is more important than what the IOC does, and that’s to follow the protocols we have all become accustomed to. Wear masks. Stay apart from each other. Wash your hands. Any participant in the Games — athlete, volunteer, journalist, whoever — has her or his close contacts monitored electronically anyway.
There are nightmare scenarios involving these Olympics, and maybe they’ll play out. But the Games haven’t begun, nor have the nightmares. Here’s trusting that, in a year-and-a-half of this pandemic, we have learned something about how to mitigate risk — and perform despite it.