Sports

Will the Olympics Really Happen?

The Olympic rings are seen lit up at a waterfront, in front of a bridge and the Tokyo skyline.
Olympic rings are lit up at dusk on the Odaiba waterfront in Tokyo on Monday. Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images

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If they happen this year, the Olympics are going to be weird. They’re supposed to start on July 23, but the games will still be called the “2020 Olympics,” for merchandising reasons. And the games have been protested for months: Back in April, when the Olympic torch was carried through the city of Nagano, it was met by protesters who held signs that read “Cancel the Olympics” and “Focus on Coronavirus Countermeasures.” If you watched all this on Japanese television, you might not have heard their chants, because someone faded down the audio while the torch relay was being broadcast. To sports writers, this is typical of the way the International Olympic Committee and its stakeholders—Japanese government officials—are behaving right now. It’s all a mess could lead to a widespread reevaluation of the Olympic Games themselves. On Tuesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Henry Bushnell, who writes about sports for Yahoo News, about how safe 100,000 people streaming into Japan for the games could actually be. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Mary Harris: What are the games supposed to look like this year, and how does that compare with previous Olympics events? MY impression of a normal Olympics is that it’s kind of a party atmosphere.

Henry Bushnell: I think it’s safe to say that that won’t be happening as prolifically this year. Athletes will still be in the Olympic Village, and apparently they’re still going to have roommates. It’s very questionable. But it’s very clear these games will be unlike any Olympic Games ever—not only because there won’t be as much mingling within the athletes village, but there’ll be no foreign spectators, there’ll be no tourists, and so there won’t be that festive atmosphere around everything.

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How different are the crowds going to be?

The one big question that remains unanswered is whether any fans will be in attendance at events. Organizers have already prohibited foreign fans, but they’re going to make a decision on domestic fans supposedly soon.

Part of the way the Olympics makes money is because there are tickets and people making money that, and there are tourists coming in and people going to restaurants. It sounds like so much of that will not be going on.

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The one big thing, though, is that there will still be TV broadcasts. You know, 99.5 percent of people who experience the Olympic Games in some way do so via TV, even in a normal year. The vast majority of money is tied to the TV contracts and sponsors.

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Are the athletes going to be required to be vaccinated?

No requirement. The IOC recently said they believe that already 75 percent of athletes are vaccinated, or 75 percent of people who will be in the Olympic village are vaccinated. I have no idea where they’re getting that number from. Frankly, it strikes me as a bit fishy because the US Olympic Committee—the biggest Olympic committee, the one that will be sending probably the most athletes, from a country where the vaccine is widely available—they have said they are not tracking vaccination. There are no mandates. There’s no way to keep track of any of this.

In my mind, the analogue for the Olympics is the NBA bubble, whose organizers similarly had a document they released about their rules, tested people regularly, and tried to keep people locked down. It sounds like what the IOC is doing is like the bubble lite, but with less accountability.

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It’s bubble lite and it’s also 10 times the size of the NBA bubble in terms of how many people will be there. The NBA designed its bubble in consultation with the Players Association, like, there was bargaining there. The IOC and organizers are making these decisions on their own. Athletes are not being consulted here at all. Not only that, athletes will be forced to sign waivers that say they are responsible for any sort of COVID infection or complications.

It sounds like the Japanese people are really concerned. I saw one statistic that said 80 percent of Japanese residents said they did not want the games to happen, to either have them canceled or postponed. Doctors and nurses are saying that they can’t handle more COVID cases if more spread happens here. This sounds like pretty robust lack of support for what’s about to happen.

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It is. Japan has recently had what they’ve called the “fourth wave” of COVID recently. The case rates are still much lower there than they were in the U.S. at any point over the past year, really. There’s a much lower risk threshold in in Japan, and the medical system is apparently very much overburdened right now: Hospitals are struggling to deal with an influx of patients. So there’s one fear, that the Olympics will be sapping medical resources.

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There’s another fear that the Olympics will introduce COVID into the Tokyo community and people from outside spread it among themselves and or to the Japanese people. There’s a third concern that the Olympics going on in the city will give people a sense that things are normal, that it will contribute to gatherings of different sizes, and that, even if there is no interaction between the Olympic “bubble” and the outside world, it still could affect COVID case rates in in Tokyo.

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It sounds like the infection rate in Japan is not really that high, though.

One of the points of comparison for Japan is other Asian countries that have controlled the pandemic better: Korea, Australia and New Zealand. But there are other points of comparison for Japan that are closer to home that have led public opinion to believe that Japan has been handling the pandemic really poorly recently, even though their case numbers are way lower than what we’ve seen—

And part of the concern is that not very many people in Japan are vaccinated.

Yes, exactly. I think we’re at 3 percent, maybe creeping up to 4 percent.

You would think that the Japanese government would prioritize getting as many vaccines as possible.

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You would think, but there has been a variety of issues here. The approval process for vaccines developed in other countries is stringent in Japan. It didn’t get a vaccine approved until February, and I believe the rollout process has been bad. The bottom line is very few Japanese people are vaccinated right now. They are trying to ramp up, but it’s very clear they’re not going to be able to get to over 50 percent of the population vaccinated by the time the Olympics begin.

The debate over the Olympics raises this much bigger question: Who are the Olympics for, like, who are they serving? In previous years, without a pandemic, everyone got behind the Olympics because it was a battle over national pride. Host cities can get tourist money, athletes can do something amazing, and fans can watch them do it. But the pandemic is throwing all of those incentives off in weird ways.

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I think the pandemic is exposing a lot of problems with the Olympics. The Olympics are good for foreign fans who watch on TV, they’re good for the athletes, and of course, they’re good for the IOC and their executives who make way too much money. The question is whether they’re good for the host country and, specifically, the people of the host country. For the longest time, in the lead-up to the games and the bidding process for them, the host city and country have been able to sell the Olympics as a positive to the people of their country. But that masks a lot of issues with the Olympics: They contribute to a lot of displacement. They cost a ton of money that could be going to—in my opinion and in a lot of people’s opinions—other more important causes, whether it be social services or schools. You can argue that cities can make back a lot of that money in tourism revenue, but I think it’s becoming more clear to a lot of people that it’s a pretty raw deal for the host city. And the people of the host city don’t actually get much out of the games beyond two weeks of fun.

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Essentially, what the IOC does is force Tokyo and host cities to spend billions of dollars to build infrastructure and prepare for these games. And then the IOC takes most of the revenue from them. So it’s getting more and more unpopular to bid for the Olympics. The reason cities do it is very much intangible: the international prestige that you get from hosting the Olympics. That’s why you see a lot of countries like China and Russia wanting to host the games. But more and more people are realizing that it is a terrible economic decision, to host the Olympics.

The IOC is the only one with the right to cancel these games, to make any sorts of changes to the plan, to the host contract. If Tokyo were to try to get out of this, it would be on the hook for billions of dollars in damages. It would have to cover the IOC legally if the IOC were to be sued by broadcasters or sponsors for not delivering on their deals.

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So, the International Olympic Committee has all of the decision-making authority here about whether the games take place. If it cancels the games, or if the games go forward, the only institution that has the risk of monetary exposure is the host country.

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Yes, the host country and the local organizing committee have to indemnify the IOC basically in all ways. They have to waive all sorts of legal protections when they sign this contract, which they signed way back in 2013. The IOC profits and the host countries, the host cities, bear all the risk.

The International Olympic Committee has said the reason it’s doing this is for the athletes. Do you think that’s fair?

To some extent. Look, it’s good PR to say they’re doing it for the athletes. It’s obviously not good PR to say they’re doing it for themselves and for money and for the future of the Olympic movement. The answer is they’re probably doing it for all of those things. I think there are people at the IOC who genuinely do have the athletes’ best interests in mind. But there are a lot of other cases where the IOC has shown that it is IOC first, athletes second—

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When were times they left the athletes behind?

The basic economic structure of the Olympics is that athletes don’t get much money for competing and aren’t allowed to promote their own sponsors at the Olympics. They have to promote IOC sponsors, which the IOC gets a lot of money for. There are rules that prohibit freedom of speech at the Olympics, that prohibit protest and peaceful demonstrations. There are all sorts of rules where the IOC assumes that the Olympics are so attractive, especially to athletes, athletes that the IOC forces them to conform to what it wants.

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I wonder if you talk to any athletes who may be feeling this internal division: They’re not going to get the broadcast revenue from the Olympics, but this is kind of a pinnacle achievement. If you are someone who’s a competitor, you want to go and prove yourself.

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The vast majority of them do want to compete. If you think about the three years and 11 months in between the Olympic Games, if you outright canceled these Olympics and made it seven years and 11 months in between Olympics, that’s the span of a lot of Olympians’ entire careers. That’s their window to have this chance to accomplish a lifelong dream, never mind money or anything like that.

I wonder if you think whatever happens with this Olympics is going to trickle down to future games—like, I wonder if other potential host cities are watching and wondering whether an Olympics investment actually makes sense, or whether they need to be thinking about their contracts with the IOC a little bit differently, negotiating a little bit harder.

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I think it’s a great call and that’s absolutely what’s going to happen. It was already getting increasingly unpopular to bid for the Olympics. That’s why Beijing is going to host the Winter Games in eight months, 14 years after hosting the Summer Games in 2008. Nobody else wanted to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. It came down to Beijing and a city in Kazakhstan. The IOC has to some extent acknowledged this, and is starting to make more concessions to host cities to try to make hosting the Olympics more viable. But it’s still very one-sided. I think this whole saga is setting off alarm bells in a lot of people’s minds that there’s a lot more downside here than we realize, that maybe this isn’t something we should do.

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