In all of the news and the chaos, you may have missed something that happened on schedule Friday: The Olympic flame was lit in Japan.
While the coronavirus continues to upend lives and plans, including in the sports world, there’s been stubborn optimism that conditions might improve enough by July to hold the 2020 Summer Olympics. During a press conference Saturday, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters he hoped the Tokyo Games would be a symbol of triumph in a time of global tragedy. “We will overcome the spread of the infection and host the Olympics without problem, as planned,” Abe said.
Three days later, the head of Japan soccer and vice chairman of the Japan Olympic Committee tested positive for the disease. He apologized for possibly infecting others. Hundreds of soccer officials around the world then scrambled to see if they might have come into contact with him.
This alone should have been a signal to not only Japan but the world that hosting a large international event in the midst of a pandemic is an exceptionally bad idea. The games don’t always have to go on.
There have already been a number of calls to cancel the Tokyo Games, which are scheduled to start July 24. But if the International Olympic Committee is not going to be smart, then Team USA, also known as the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee, should announce that it is boycotting.*
At this point, Team USA officials are seemingly pressing forward in spite of the obvious dangers and a nearly universal shutdown of sports domestically. While several Olympic trial events have been postponed, including wrestling, rowing, and diving, Team USA released a statement earlier this week indicating it was looking ahead to Japan.
“We are working directly with athletes and [National Governing Bodies] representatives to maintain fair and transparent team selection processes for Tokyo,” the statement read.
The U.S. Olympic committee has been careful to remind the public it understands the gravity of the pandemic and regularly updates its website to make sober pronouncements about monitoring the situation. The organization also closed its two main training centers in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and Lake Placid, New York, on Wednesday because of worries about coronavirus spread. But many athletes are still finding ways to stay on track for Japan: Several U.S. wrestlers competed last weekend in an Olympic qualifier in Ottawa, a pair of U.S. beach volleyball players were close to boarding a flight to Australia for a qualifying event this week when they learned it was postponed, and an American woman on Wednesday became the first U.S. qualifier in the new Olympic sport of karate.
The nation’s top track organization says it remains committed to hosting the Olympic track and field team trials in Eugene, Oregon, in June. That could be a disaster, with thousands of athletes and spectators set to arrive in a state where the governor indicated Thursday she was close to issuing a blanket “shelter in place” order to slow the spread of the virus. And even if they held these trials without spectators, that would still be about 1,100 athletes competing in 40 events traveling from around the country to congregate. It just can’t happen, and it shouldn’t take an order from the governor to stop it.
For the U.S., a boycott would not even be unprecedented. Forty years ago this month, President Jimmy Carter announced the U.S. boycott of the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow because of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan. More than 60 countries followed America’s lead and declined their invitation to the Olympics that year. The USSR returned the favor in 1984.
Rather than hurting the long-term standing of the Olympics, these were moves that confirmed the symbolic importance of the games. Rightly or wrongly, in periods of turmoil, global leaders and athletes have looked to the Olympics as a platform to make a statement about the state of the world. It’s time for that now.
On Friday, Japan reported 51 new cases of the coronavirus, even as officials there said the spread of the virus seemed to be slowing and lifted a state of emergency in the worst-affected region. But so much remains unknown about the chances for another outbreak. Already in Asia, South Korea, China, and Singapore are among the countries facing a second coronavirus wave. Plus, does the location itself actually matter when you are talking about gathering athletes from around the world? “You bring a lot of people together, and then you ship them back all over the world: That’s the perfect way to transmit,” Stanford infectious disease specialist Yvonne Maldonado told the Washington Post.
Here in the U.S., the NBA, NHL, MLB, and MLS have all suspended their seasons. A number of high-profile sports events have been called off, including March Madness and the Masters. There’s even precedent from just this week for canceling large multination events, as the Euro 2020 and Copa America soccer tournaments were called off with support from FIFA. Even President Donald Trump, someone who hasn’t acquitted himself particularly well throughout this ordeal, said the 2020 Olympics should be delayed if spectators weren’t allowed into the venues. (But, again, even without spectators, there are dangers.)
There’s a lot of incentive to proceed as if everything will be fine. Japan has poured more than $25 billion in public and private money to stage the games. In 2014, NBC paid $7.7 billion as part of a package to broadcast the games until 2032. The Washington Post reported that NBC says it has sold nearly 90 percent of its advertising inventory, which is worth $1.25 billion.
Beyond the money, no one wants to deny thousands of athletes their opportunity to compete in the world’s premier sporting event. Many of them compete for very little money, in relative obscurity, just for the chance to walk into Olympic Stadium for the opening ceremony. It’s understandable why they, and even Olympic organizers, want to keep the dream alive. To even get to the Olympics requires the kind of courage and perseverance that would make the coronavirus seem like just another hurdle.
Sandi Morris, a silver medalist in the pole vault in 2016 and the American record holder, articulated what I imagine many Olympic-level athletes feel.
“Corona hasn’t won this battle yet! Nope nope nope! Don’t give up hope!” she tweeted earlier this week.
That’s exactly the attitude you’d expect of a champion athlete. But the coronavirus is no mere competitor. COVID-19 now a deathly and persistent reality, and if the international committee won’t recognize that, it’s time for Team USA to take the lead.
If the U.S. Olympic committee cares about the athletes, and the Olympic ideal of international cooperation, the way it says it does, it should embrace the smartest way to win this battle: stay home.
Correction, March 20, 2020: This piece originally erroneously referred to the United States Olympic & Paralympic Committee as the United States Olympic Committee.