If the Olympics were held in a big city and no one was there to hear them, would they make a sound?
The Olympic show must go on, says the International Olympic Committee, even if there are no spectators.
Oh, and also sponsors are dropping out like marathoners on a hot day, and COVID-19 is spiking in Tokyo, and a growing number of athletes are testing positive.
Sounds like fun, doesn’t it? The new Olympic theme: Citius — Altius — Fortius — Covidius.
On the eve of the Games, no one is really talking about the athletes; everyone is talking about the pandemic precautions and potentialities. COVID is the gold-medal favorite.
From the start, the Tokyo Summer Games just sounded like a bad idea. Aren’t all the current problems exactly what everyone feared? No one can say the grand poobahs at the IOC weren’t warned. The biggest fear of course is that the Olympics will push the pandemic out of control.
There is some historical precedence: The Spanish flu pandemic of 1918.
Johnny Smith, a sports history professor and co-author of “War Fever: Boston, Baseball, and America in the Shadow of the Great War,” told Forbes what happened when soldiers returning from war mixed with fans who were attending the World Series: “In late August of 1918, you have soldiers and sailors coming back from (fighting in World War I in) France. They dock at the Commonwealth Pier in Boston, and this is the beginning of the second wave of influenza to strike in the United States, and it’s the most devastating by far. Most of the Americans who died from the influenza outbreak of 1918 would die between September and December.”
As recently as a month ago, slightly more than half of Tokyo’s residents said they wanted the Games to be canceled or postponed. Just a couple of days ago Toshiro Muto, head of the Tokyo Olympics Organizing Committee, refused to rule out the possibility of cancellation.
If they go on, the 2021 Olympics will be a strange event, a festival in a vacuum — or a TV studio. No spectators will be allowed at the Olympic venues. During medal ceremonies, athletes will put on their own medal rather than have some IOC official do the honor. One Olympic official said the opening ceremonies — usually a Macy’s Day parade on steroids — will be a more “sobering” event.
It was announced months ago that foreigner spectators were banned from the Games, and more recently local residents were told to watch the Games on TV. For months the State Department has advised Americans not to travel to Japan, giving it a “Level 4” rating — its highest cautionary level.
The Games were already postponed once, from last year to this year. Two weeks ago the government declared a state of emergency in Tokyo because of the rise in COVID-19 cases. Earlier this week it was reported that new COVID-19 cases had reached the highest levels since January, when Japan experienced a record spike.
Several athletes have already tested positive for COVID or have been exposed and placed in quarantine — USA basketball players Jerami Grant, Bradley Beal and Katie Lou Samuelson, Australian tennis player Alex de Minaur, six unnamed members of the British team, USA alternate gymnasts Kara Eaker (of the University of Utah) and Leeanne Wong, South African soccer players Thabiso Monyane and Kamohelo Mahlatsi, Cech volleyball player Ondrej Perusic, USA tennis player Coco Gauff. Expect this list to grow.
It doesn’t sound good, does it.
We’ve grown used to games played in front of empty seats in stadiums and seen only by those sitting in front of the TV. In a way, sports have been headed this way for decades. They have increasingly become a TV event. It is TV that dictates schedules and kickoff times and timeouts and you could even say the changing styles of our favorite sports. But whoever expected such a fate for the Olympics, the planet’s biggest event?
Anyway, at this point there are some compelling reasons for the Games to press on. For one thing, the pandemic-weary world is looking forward to two weeks of entertainment (it certainly beats watching “Downton Abbey” reruns one more time). The 2016 Rio Olympics drew a TV audience of 3.2 billion. The audience could be bigger this time.
Then there are the athletes, who have been training since 2016 for this event. They trained for the 2020 Games, and after those Games were postponed they had to start over and redirect their training programs for 2021. What do you tell them if the Games are canceled again? The Olympic window of opportunity is not open long. Some of those who were ready in 2020 weren’t so ready in 2021 (former world champions Donavan Brazier and Jenny Simpson, for instance).
The next two weeks promise to be full of challenges. Let’s hope 1918 doesn’t repeat itself.