The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

We don’t know whether the coronavirus should affect the Olympics. We do know the IOC.

A boy with a mask poses with an Olympic torch while visiting Tokyo Olympic Museum. (Jae C. Hong/AP)

The Summer Olympics are such a crowded, sweat-dampened, close-packed and germ-ridden affair that attending them can be like hanging out inside someone’s mouth. And that’s in the best of circumstances, when the world isn’t on the brink of a pandemic. Knowing what we know now about the novel coronavirus — the very little we know, which is not nearly enough to fully understand its dangers and spread — it’s fair to ask, should the Games go on?

It’s premature to call for the cancellation or postponement of Tokyo 2020. But with the torch relay about to begin and just 150 days remaining to the Opening Ceremonies, it’s certainly not too early to ask how the organizers and the International Olympic Committee realistically propose to keep the Summer Games healthy and secure as opposed to a disease epicenter. How can they prevent an outbreak with athletes from 200 countries and 7.5 million ticket holders preparing to jam into villages and venues? They better have a Plan B.

So far, they don’t. Olympic authorities insist no alterations are even being contemplated. Dick Pound of the IOC said Tuesday that it was “business as usual,” while the organization’s Tokyo event coordinator, John Coates, said last week that “there is no case for any contingency plans or canceling the Games or moving the Games.” Why not? Why are officials so sure, so much surer than everyone else, that holding a mega-sports event in the midst of a viral epidemic is a harmless idea?

The IOC’s very sureness is untrustworthy. More than 40 other international sports events have been postponed or altered. There are fast-moving new outbreaks from Europe to the Middle East, with no vaccine yet or a definitive incubation period. It hardly seems wise to wad up delegations from all the countries of the world and throw them into the same rooms for two weeks. What is this special immunity, this antidote enjoyed by the Olympics that makes them so sure it’s safe?

Money, that’s what. There are so many billions at stake that no one dares to sound unsure.

Could Olympics be impacted by coronavirus? IOC has three months to decide, one official says.

The estimated cost of building, hosting and organizing the Tokyo Games is around $25 billion. The IOC is counting on $5.7 billion in broadcast rights, and Japanese companies have paid out $3 billion in sponsorship deals they could never recoup. You think the lords of Lausanne want to contemplate giving any of that back?

There is simply no way Olympic officials can be as confident as they are trying to sound, and that should be worrying to every athlete across the globe. The athlete village in Tokyo will house 18,000 people all in one place. It’s the size of five Diamond Princess cruise ships put together, a perfect matrix of recirculated air and potentially infectious surfaces.

This is not a body that anyone should trust to deal out transparent information. This is a body that specializes in authoritarian prestige branding and coverups. It has worked hand in glove with the thugocracies of China and Russia, tolerated slave labor and other human rights abuses in the construction of Olympic stadiums. It let athletes plunge into infected waterways in Rio, knowing they were environmentally dodgy and that some would be sickened, which they were.

It dodged a major crisis with the Zika virus four years ago, mainly because the disease struck urban poor with unscreened windows, as opposed to athletes and officials in sequestered villages that had been intensely fumigated. Still, more athletes got sick in Rio than you may realize. One study showed 32 of 457 American athletes tested positive for some kind of virus they acquired there, West Nile or dengue fever or chikungunya.

American athletes should be especially skeptical of any assurances they receive from the IOC’s subsidiary, the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, given its well-documented history of putting a buck ahead of athletes’ bodies. Ahead of Rio, its typical response was to attach new language to participation forms requiring athletes to release officials from any responsibility for any “illness” they might acquire there.

All of which is to say that when the IOC and USOPC sound their most certain, that’s when you should run.

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The World Health Organization has affirmed that coronavirus “absolutely” has the potential to become a pandemic and that it is “knocking on the door” of several more countries. Under those circumstances, it’s difficult to see how Japan can prepare adequately for a massive Summer Games. An Olympics doesn’t just start up out of nothing with the Opening Ceremonies; it starts months ahead of time with a series of rehearsals involving thousands of people: security and screening procedures have to be tested at live mass gatherings, new infrastructure and capacity has to be tried. How is any of that supposed to happen properly?

Training sessions for 80,000 volunteers already have been delayed until May as “part of efforts to prevent spread of infection.” How much does that potentially compromise organization and security? The torch relay is due to begin March 12 in Greece and arrive in Japan on March 19, and travel through 47 prefectures in 121 days. How is that a safe thing to do?

What officials should be saying is “Illnesses happen a lot at the Olympics, despite everyone’s best efforts, and we are going to have to watch developments carefully and consider all our options.”

Obviously, Olympic officials don’t want to contribute to a panic. To the people who have invested heavily and worked their hearts out for a Tokyo Olympics, the effect of cancellation or postponement could be its own kind of illness. But this a mysterious contagion about which not nearly enough is certain, except for a couple of frightening facts. It moves incredibly swiftly in crowded places and comes with a high percentage of hospitalizations that could overwhelm even the most prepared system.

But what’s known above all is that stubbornness and denial, a surfeit of official confidence, has worsened the outbreaks.

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