Opinion | Do not hold the Olympics this summer

Thursday, February 18, 2021 - 3:31pm

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Graphic by Mellisa Lee

The Olympics are back on. After being postponed in 2020 due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, the International Olympic Committee announced on Feb. 3 that the postponed Summer Olympics will take place in Tokyo from July 23 to Aug. 8. To prevent the games from being a total super spreader event, the IOC has imposed a number of restrictions on activity surrounding the games. The restrictions that have grabbed headlines are bans on cheering, as well as bans on hugs, high-fives and handshakes

On top of these, athletes will be required to submit a negative COVID-19 test 72 hours before leaving their home country and another upon arrival in Tokyo. Additionally, it is likely that international audiences will be banned from attending. While it is certainly noble for the IOC to put these rules in place, and it seems less likely for the Olympics to become a massive superspreader event than the Super Bowl was, it’s still inadvisable for Tokyo to hold the Olympics this summer.

The main problem with hosting the Olympics during a pandemic is that Japan simply does not have the pandemic under control. While Japan received a great deal of commendation at the beginning of the pandemic for its successful promotion of mask-wearing as a means of keeping COVID-19 deaths low, the trend has reversed in recent months. Japan had a seven-day average of six deaths per day on Nov. 8 and within a handful of months, that number has now risen to 97 deaths per day. 

Despite the general global trend of decreasing cases, countries like Mexico and Russia saw increases in COVID-19 deaths relative to their respective spring seasons. All of this is compounded by the fact that Japan is only now beginning to distribute COVID-19 vaccinations. The fact is, we have no idea where Japan’s COVID-19 progress will be in July, and it is incredibly irresponsible to hold an event with people from every country on Earth, no matter how many restrictions the IOC imposes.

As for those restrictions, it’s hard not to visualize massive openings where COVID-19 can arise, despite the aforementioned testing requirements. Even with these requirements, there are noticeable weaknesses. For one, COVID-19 can take up to two weeks to incubate and register on a test, meaning that it is entirely possible for a potential case to not show up on either test. While it may not be likely that this will impact numerous athletes and other critical personnel, all it takes is a few cases among the tens of thousands of people who will be participating in these games for the disease to begin spreading. 

While this issue could possibly be nullified by a mandatory two-week quarantine before the start of the games, the IOC has not yet mandated this potentially useful requirement. Instead, participants just need to submit a plan of where they will be for their first two weeks in Japan and limit activity within Olympic venues. Ignoring the potential for straight-up lying on these plans — considering it’s not possible to track tens of thousands of people individually — this still leaves room for intermingling among the athletes in their first two weeks in Japan, which could lead to the virus spreading. 

And the effects of this spread are not solely limited to the participants. The 2021 Olympics is expected to have athletes from over 200 countries, who will return home after the games. There’s a reason why international travel restrictions were some of the first measures most governments imposed to stop COVID-19 — it’s much easier to contain the virus within borders than with people constantly entering and leaving through them.

Putting all of that aside, even if all athletes were quarantined before and after the games, it is still a bad idea to hold the Olympics this summer — they’d effectively be a money pit for Japan. Holding the Olympics is not cheap — the Japanese government has estimated that these games cost $12.6 billion to hold. In order for this event to be an economically sound decision, they would have to bring in a lot of tourism revenue. 

However, as the games will likely not allow spectators from outside of the country, that revenue will be impossible to bring in. Asking the Japanese taxpayers to foot a $12.6 billion bill for games they’ll likely only see on television is insane, especially when (and this is crucial) there is nothing preventing Japan and the IOC from postponing the Olympics another year. Sure, it would be unusual to hold the Winter and Summer Olympics in the same year, but it was unusual to hold the NBA finals in August. It was unusual to start the college football season in October as well, but the University decided the safety of our players was more important than being on schedule. 

Waiting another year for the Olympics would allow the world to make more progress in vaccinations, especially for athletes who are not currently required to be vaccinated before these games. This would allow a far safer, more enjoyable Olympics for athletes, spectators and the people of Japan. We would be irresponsible to proceed as we are now.

Brandon Cowit can be reached at cowitb@umich.edu


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