Finally, the grand poobahs of the International Olympic Committee came to their senses. Less than a week after stubbornly insisting they were “fully committed” to holding the Tokyo Summer Games as scheduled — never mind the global pandemic — and then proving it with the arrival of the Olympic flame in Japan, news came Monday from a veteran IOC member that the Games will be postponed.
Of course, by then, IOC officials had no choice. Their hand was forced. Countries were rebelling and even pulling out of the Games even as the IOC pressed forward.
The postponement of the Olympics was long overdue. To do otherwise would be irresponsible and endanger people everywhere. It would be difficult to design a better way to spread the disease if you were trying. Imagine athletes, spectators and officials from all over the world — an estimated 10 million of them — converging on a densely populated metropolis on an island nation, then, after mingling for several days they return home to points around the globe, taking the virus with them. Even if the spread of the virus is arrested by July, it seems reasonable to assume the Olympics could help start the pandemic all over again.
All of this presumes that anyone would even show up in Tokyo in the first place, given the circumstances. It’s likely there would have been a lot of empty seats.
The IOC released an incredibly naive statement last week that stated, “All measures are being taken to safeguard the safety and interests of athletes, coaches and support teams.” How were they going to do that — by putting everyone in hazmat suits? With great irony, the Japanese Olympic Committee’s deputy chief, Kozo Tashima, revealed last week that he has tested positive for the coronavirus. They couldn’t even protect one of their own; how were they going to protect the Olympics?
Everyone but the IOC faced the necessity and inevitability of postponement. Over the weekend Brazil and Norway asked the IOC to postpone the Games. So did a group of Olympic athletes from around the world. The U.S. federations for swimming and track and field released letters last week that called for postponement.
Then on Sunday night, Canada announced that it would not send a team to the Olympics because of the pandemic. This was followed by another announcement in which the Australian Olympic Committee told its athletes to prepare for a one-year postponement of the Games.
More countries were certain to follow.
“This is not solely about athlete health — it is about public health,” Team Canada said in its statement. “With COVID-19 and the associated risks, it is not safe for our athletes, and the health and safety of their families and the broader Canadian community for athletes to continue training toward these Games. In fact, it runs counter to the public health advice which we urge all Canadians to follow.”
The question is, what took the IOC so long?
Well, actually, the answer to that question is pretty clear. It was about money. It was about Larry Vaughn. Remember Vaughn, the mayor in the original “Jaws” movie who refused to shut down the beaches even while local residents were being served up as hors-d’oeuvres to a strangely intelligent and vengeful great white shark? He didn’t want to lose tourist dollars. The Olympics at every level are led by multiple Larry Vaughns, minus the bad sports jacket. They have been unwilling to shut down the Olympics for the same reason Mayor Vaughn didn’t shut down the beaches.
As Dave Zirin and Jules Boykoff explained in a piece they co-wrote for The Nation, “The International Olympic Committee’s foot-dragging lays bare exactly why it is so insistent on the continuation of the games no matter the costs. This is about the money, the sponsors, and the billions invested in the project. It must be pointed out that the IOC and NBC have insurance, so this isn’t about their losing money. It’s about the money that they will not be earning. It’s about profits before it’s about the welfare of the athletes.”
Billions of dollars have been spent by sponsors, corporate partners and the host country — estimated to be well over $20 billion by the latter. The IOC alone pulled in $5.7 billion in the last Olympiad (from 2013-16), which is probably why the IOC clung to the hope of holding the Games as scheduled, from July 24 to Aug. 9. Meanwhile, the rest of the world has been making sacrifices to keep people apart and slow the spread of the illness. Sports have shut down, people are quarantining themselves and businesses have closed or drastically altered the way they work.
The Olympics have been cancelled only for world wars — in 1916, 1942 and 1944. They continued in other trying circumstances, most notably after 11 Israeli athletes were killed by terrorists during the 1972 Munich Summer Games.
In 2020, the IOC is facing a threat unlike any it has encountered. The postponement of the Games should have been done weeks ago.
Editor’s note: This column was updated after news the Games would be postponed.