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Tokyo Games struggling with COVID-19 — what it means for Utah’s Olympic dream

Gael Monfils, of France, practices at the Ariake Tennis Center ahead of the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.
Gael Monfils, of France, practices at the Ariake Tennis Center ahead of the 2020 Summer Olympics on Thursday, July 22, 2021, in Tokyo.
Seth Wenig, Associated Press

When Japan was awarded the 2020 Summer Games, the event was expected to showcase the island nation’s recovery from the deadly earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster a decade ago.

Then COVID-19 shut down the world, and the Olympics were delayed a year.

That was supposed to be enough time to put the pandemic in the past, and celebrate a global comeback from the deadly virus, much as the 2002 Winter Games in Salt Lake City brought the world together for the first time after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attack on the United States.

But that’s not happening as the new, more contagious delta variant of the virus that first struck more than a year and half ago rages through Japan and much of the rest of the world, raising new questions about the impact of Tokyo’s legacy on the bid to bring the Olympics back to Utah, again and again.

Tokyo is struggling with new COVID-19 outbreaks already sidelining athletes despite a ban on spectators and a slew of other safety protocols — including having winners hang their medals around their necks themselves — that are fueling fears the Games may be remembered as a massive superspreader event.

Lightning illuminates the sky over the Olympic rings and the Rainbow Bridge in Tokyo on Sunday, July 11, 2021.
Kyodo News via Associated Press

In the lead-up to Friday’s opening ceremonies for what’s still known as the 2020 Summer Games, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach was in Japan offering assurances this will be the “most restricted sports event ever in the world” due to the measures taken to slow the virus.

But even before the first competitions started on Wednesday, more than two dozen of the 20,000 or so athletes, coaches and officials arriving in Japan had tested positive for COVID-19 and are in isolation, including Team USA gymnastics alternate Kara Eaker, a future University of Utah gymnast who was vaccinated.

As of Monday, The New York Times reported 33 Japanese citizens working at the Games also tested positive for COVID-19 a week after Tokyo entered a new state of emergency through Aug. 22 that discourages public gatherings, calling for restaurants and bars to close early and refrain from serving alcohol.

A poll last weekend for Kyodo News, Japan’s leading wire service, found that 87% of Japan’s residents expressed concern about hosting the Olympics and the Paralympics, and just over 31% want to cancel the Games. Since May, more than 450,000 Japanese have signed a petition seeking cancellation.

Some are going so far as to suggest the time has come to rethink the Olympics altogether. In a recent article entitled, “Let the Games...be gone?” The New York Times revives debate over whether the summer and winter spectacles can evolve sufficiently to satisfy a modern audience.

In this aerial photo, the Olympic rings are seen with spectators’ seats at the National Stadium in Tokyo.
In this aerial photo, the Olympic rings are seen with spectators’ seats at the National Stadium in Tokyo.
Kyodo News via Associated Press

What about Utah?

Utahns, of course, have traditionally been enthusiastic about the Olympics. An oft-cited poll by leaders of the Salt Lake City-Utah Committee for the Games that’s pursuing another Winter Games, likely in 2030 or 2034, showed 89% of Utahns back another bid.

Those numbers are from 2017, a year before Salt Lake City was selected over Denver by the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee as America’s choice to bid for a still unspecified Winter Games. But backers of the latest bid are counting on support remaining high no matter what happens in Tokyo.

“The bottom line, I believe that the people of Utah have loved the Games. They continue to love the Games,” said Fraser Bullock, the bid committee’s president and CEO who served as chief operating officer of the 2002 Winter Games under MItt Romney, now one of Utah’s U.S. senators.

After all, the 2002 Winter Games were deemed among the best-ever by International Olympic Committee leaders, despite the security concerns posed by 9/11 and fallout from the scandal that surfaced years earlier over the cash, gifts and scholarships Salt Lake City bidders handed out to IOC members.

Utah also has been the biggest television market in the country for the Olympics, and Tokyo’s Summer Games broadcast in the United States on NBC, which spent a record $12 billion for the rights for two decades through 2032, are expected to be no exception.

When Utahns tune into the Olympics, Bullock said, what they’ll see should ease any doubts about hosting again.

“Once the Games start, everything changes. We focus on the ceremonies and the wonderful pageantry. Then we see the athletes perform. ... That’s when the Games really come to life,” he said, although “there’s always going to be the story of COVID in the background.”

Japan’s Maya Yoshida, left, takes a penalty kick against South Africa as the stands sit empty during a men’s soccer match at the 2020 Summer Olympics on Thursday, July 22, 2021, in Tokyo.
Shuji Kajiyama, Associated Press

Still, seeing empty stands during the coverage should be overshadowed by “the enthusiasm of the athletes that are competing, as it should be,” Bullock said, and Tokyo should be seen as “a sister Olympic city, and our empathy and support should be very, very strong. ... What they’ve gone through is unprecedented.”

Jeff Robbins Utah Sports Commission president and CEO and a member of the bid’s executive committee, said he feels for Tokyo organizers and hopes that Utahns do, too.

“Right now, I think we’re focused on hoping they have a successful Games, as successful as they can have,” Robbins said. “They have a herculean task in holding these Games so I think we would all like people to wish (them) the best of luck, especially when you’re dealt with a difficult hand like they are.”

‘Time’s on our side’

Don’t expect to hear much more from those behind Utah’s Olympic dreams anytime soon. There are no plans for any public events promoting the bid during the Tokyo Games — and may not be until next February, the 20th anniversary of the start of the 2002 Winter Games.

“I think the best thing we can do is be supportive. Certainly, it’s unfortunate. I think everybody feels bad. But hey, they’re the Olympic city,” Robbins said, and deserve international attention. “We want that light to shine on Japan and Tokyo, the best that it can.”

Staying out of the limelight is also the strategy for promoting the bid to Olympic decision-makers.

An All Nippon Airways passenger jet climbs past the rising moon after taking off from Haneda Airport on the eve of the pandemic-delayed 2020 Summer Olympics on Thursday, July 22, 2021, in Tokyo.
Charlie Riedel, Associated Press

Because of a spectator travel ban, Utah bidders had to scrap plans to be in Tokyo, where they’d intended to take advantage of the opportunity to meet informally with IOC members and others as they await a decision on whether the U.S. is bidding for the 2030 or 2034 Winter Games.

That may not be determined by the USOPC until after the 2022 Winter Games in Beijing, set to start in just six months and already stirring calls for boycotts because of China’s human rights record. Traditionally, the IOC awards a Games seven years out, but a pick could come sooner under a new, less-structured bid process.

Other cities considering a Winter Games bid include Sapporo, Japan; Vancouver, Canada; and Barcelona, Spain. Like Salt Lake City, all have hosted an Olympics before — Sapporo, the 1972 Winter Games; Vancouver, the 2010 Winter Games; and Barcelona, bidding with the nearby Pyrenees region, the 1992 Summer Games.

Utah bidders are readying plans to be prepared to host not just in either 2030 or 2034, but every 20 years or so after that by continuing to maintain the state’s ski jumps and bobsled, skeleton and luge track in Park City, speedskating oval in Kearns and other Olympic facilities.

“Time’s on our side,” Robbins said of maintaining a low profile during Tokyo.

Mitigating risks of hosting another Olympics

That may — or may not — be the case for Utah’s bid, suggested Mark Conrad, a professor of law and ethics and director of the sports business concentration at Fordham University’s Gabelli School of Business in New York City, who has criticized the IOC’s control over the Tokyo Olympics, including whether the Games could be canceled.

“This is very far in the future, and the IOC is going to ride this out because they have a problem on their hands in Tokyo. They have a bigger problem on their hands in Beijing,” he said, although hosts have been lined up through the 2026 Winter Games, in Milan, Italy, and the 2032 Summer Games, in Brisbane, Australia.

Given the complexity of organizing an Olympics, he said public safety and health are going to continue to be considerations for future bidders, “but many things, of course, can happen,” he said, such as climate change. Whether Tokyo’s experience means the IOC will turn over any control remains to be seen, Conrad said.

“If Salt Lake is the only viable candidate, Salt Lake is going to have leverage and I expect people on the Olympic (bid) committee are going to want concessions from the IOC,” he said. If there continues to be other serious bidders and “one is more desperate than the other to get the Games, the IOC has the leverage.”

That’s what happened with Tokyo, Conrad said, which competed for 2020 along with Rome, Istanbul and Madrid, as well as two other cities eliminated earlier by the IOC, Doha, Qatar, and Baku, Azerbaijan.

“It was a very, very spirited competition,” he said. “I think their Olympic committee was so happy for whatever reason just to get the Olympics, that they pretty much gave into to what the IOC wanted in a contract that’s unfortunately coming to really bite them.”

That lesson is not lost on backers of Utah’s bid, who made it clear in a letter to the IOC president last October that help would be needed to mitigate the risk of hosting again in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic that delayed the Tokyo Games for a year.

“While risk was always part of the planning for hosting Olympic and Paralympic Games, the risk awareness of what could happen has risen to a new level, which affects all parties,” the letter signed by Bullock and other Olympic leaders, including then-Gov. Gary Herbert and Salt Lake City Mayor Erin Mendenhall, states.

Bullock said even though there were contingency plans in 2002 that enabled organizers to cope with the aftermath of 9/11, Tokyo’s situation shows there’s more to do, especially when it comes to potentially having to cancel or postpone a Games.

“We obviously need to be very cognizant of the need for risk management and risk mitigation. Yes, we want to host. We want to welcome the world again. But we need to do it in a very, very prudent and risk-managed fashion,” he said, meaning there has to be more flexibility for organizers.

People walk near the Olympic Rings on Wednesday, June 9, 2021 in Tokyo.
Eugene Hoshiko, Associated Press

Olympics ‘reflection of human resiliency’

Despite the risk posed by the increasing COVID-19 cases surrounding the Tokyo Games, cancellation wouldn’t have been the best option for organizers there, Bullock said, because athletes would have been denied the chance to compete.

“Personally, given the careful management of health protocols that I’m very aware of, that they’re doing in Tokyo, I’m excited for these athletes who, for many of them, this is their one shot in a lifetime that they’ve prepared for their entire lives,” he said. “I’m thrilled they’re going to be able to show those skills.”

Dr. Eric Heiden, a Park City-based orthopedic surgeon who won Olympic gold medals and set records in all five speedskating events at the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York, has no doubt the Tokyo Games will be seen as a success by the athletes.

“I’m confident that the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee and the IOC are doing as much as they can to make this safe for the athletes and a successful Olympics,” he said, although competing in empty stadiums, limiting contact and other restrictions will make for a much different experience.

“One of the things that I remember most and have the fondest memories of is the Olympic Village,” Heiden said, where most athletes stay during the Games. “That is one of the things that is unique about sports, is it brings people from around the world together, and it allows you to really reflect on the fact this is a small world.”

Also a longtime member of Utah’s bid effort, he believes that once the Summer Games are underway, “what COVID has done will be in the rearview mirror.”

Instead of the virus, Heiden said, “people will be more focused on the celebration of sport that the Olympics are. It’s a reflection of human resiliency. Very much like what we saw in 2002, that despite what seems to knock us down on our knees, we still have as human beings the ability to be optimistic and look ahead to the future.”

A person wearing a protective mask takes a picture from an observation deck as National Stadium, where the opening ceremony of the Tokyo 2020 Olympics will be held, is seen in the background on Saturday, July 10, 2021, in Tokyo.
Kiichiro Sato, Associated Press
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