Another Olympic Games is upon us, which means another installment of Olympics Jerk Watch, the vaguely biennial column in which I survey the landscape of Olympics participants and stakeholders in order to determine who is and is not a jerk. This service is meant for you, the reader, as the Olympics are much more fun with a roster of clearly delineated jerks against whom to root. But what happens when the top jerk contender is, effectively, the Olympics itself? Can we credibly root against the Games while still choosing to watch and enjoy them? This cognitively taxing proposition is the inaugural topic for this year’s installment of Olympics Jerk Watch. Let’s jerk away!
Name: The International Olympic Committee (IOC)
Home country: Though based in Switzerland, the IOC really belongs to the entire world, which means, I guess, that we’re sort of all to blame.
Why they might be jerks: When I think of the IOC, I think of a bloated European man receiving a bag filled with money as the digestif to a five-course lunch served on someone else’s yacht. (I call this imaginary man “Serge,” for some reason.) From “hospitality” scandals to doping scandals to human rights scandals to ”get Eddie the Eagle out of the Olympics” scandals, the IOC has spent decades making the NCAA look like a charity hospital. That’s not a perfect comparison, but the point is that the IOC has long been a bastion of opaque processes, bad decisions, and negative externalities—all three of which have been magnified by the organization’s choice to have the Tokyo Games go forward even as an ongoing pandemic continues to devastate Japan and much of the rest of the world.
When the IOC, in conjunction with Japan, begrudgingly decided to postpone the 2020 Summer Olympics last year, they were no doubt hoping that, by 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic would be completely behind us, thus leaving us all free to guiltlessly resume our quadrennial routine of pretending to care about water polo and rhythmic gymnastics. Well, 2021 is here, and, unfortunately, water polo is still boring and the pandemic is still here, too, no matter how much the IOC’s sporteaucrats have tried to wish it away.
Make no mistake, the IOC has done a lot of wishing. In May, IOC president Thomas Bach announced that “the athletes definitely can make their Olympic dreams come true. We have to make some sacrifices to make this possible.” The people of Japan, understandably, interpreted this jerky statement as meaning that they would have to make some sacrifices—read: put their own safety at risk—in order to host an Olympics that most of them, according to polling, do not actually want.
Why are so many Japanese leery of welcoming the world’s biggest potential superspreader event? Perhaps because a mere 23 percent of the Japanese population has been fully vaccinated, according to the New York Times. The nation is averaging 3,840 new COVID cases per day, and those numbers have been steadily and alarmingly increasing since the beginning of July. Tokyo, the host city, is currently under a state of emergency due to the virus. “Now, more than 80% of people want to postpone or cancel the Olympics,” Softbank CEO Masayoshi Son wrote on Twitter in May. “Does the IOC have the right to decide to hold it?
The answer, according to the IOC, is yes. The group has long been expert at forcing things through while ignoring the will of the people. As per that ongoing tacit mandate, the IOC has responded to all this anti-Games sentiment by, effectively, sticking its fingers in its ears and chanting “neener neener neener” to drown out its critics. I exaggerate, of course; “neener neener neener” would be a much more cogent and nuanced COVID response than much of what the IOC has actually offered. In May, for instance, IOC bigwig John Coates told reporters that “the measures we are undertaking will ensure a safe Games regardless of whether there is a state of emergency or not.” Measures! Well! In that case, there’s nothing to worry about!
What’s that? There is still something to worry about? My mistake. What are these vaunted measures we’ve heard so much about? Mandatory vaccinations aren’t one of them; instead of requiring vaccination certificates from its athletes, the IOC instead decided to rely on a regimen of testing upon arrival and then again throughout the Games, according to the New York Times. Well, that worked for the NBA bubble, you say? Yes, it did, but the NBA bubble—aside from, ya know, existing before the availability of highly effective vaccines—was a strict bubble that, as far as I know, was really only punctured when Lou Williams went out for wings. The 2021 Olympic Village, in practice, appears to be less a bubble than a soup strainer.
“It’s obvious that the bubble system is kind of broken,” physician and health policy expert Kenji Shibuya recently told Reuters, citing “insufficient” testing protocols, the “impossibility” of restricting movement in and out of the bubble, and ample video evidence of athletes closely interacting with nonathletes. If there’s a problem here, the IOC doesn’t seem to see it. In mid-July, as Japan’s daily COVID case count continued to rise, Bach said that the COVID risk posed by Olympic participants to “the other residents of Olympic village and […] the Japanese people is zero.”
The upshot? On Friday, according to Bloomberg, “Japan’s Olympics organizers reported a record number of new daily coronavirus infections linked to the Games,” including one athlete currently living in the Olympic Village. More infections are surely on the way. For those, and for whatever other public health consequences might result from this Olympics that didn’t have to happen, you can thank the jerks at the IOC. Thanks a lot, you jerks!
Why they might not be jerks: Just as water finds its level, church bells chime, and Americans flock to movies about magical heroes in stupid hats, the IOC puts on the Olympics. It’s what it does. Putting on the Olympics is its entire reason for existence. And so I sort of find it hard to get truly exercised that the IOC decided to go forward with the Olympics. The IOC is doing what it does. It’s fulfilling its core purpose. It’s not a decision that I would’ve made, but, then again, that’s why I’m not an international sports executive. Instead, I am an intermittently productive Slate blogger, and my core purpose is to nitpick other people’s statements and decisions. We all just do what we do, man.
I think you can make a case that the world needs the Olympics now, too, after what has been a very rough year and a half. I mean, Japan certainly might not need the Olympics and its potential epidemiological consequences, but, broadly, people like the Olympics. Maybe they shouldn’t, but they do. The Olympics make people happy. They bring people together. They allow people to believe, for at least two-and-a-half weeks per year, that adversaries can overcome their differences; that it’s possible to set down your grievances and come together for a joint celebration of competition, humanity, and undetectable performance-enhancing substances. The Olympics point toward the best in us, even as they often bring out the worst in many of their stakeholders.
And, let’s be honest: It’s not July 2020 any more, either. It would have been literally insane to host the Olympics last year. This year, well, it still doesn’t strike me as particularly prudent, but at least an increasing percentage of people have been vaccinated, and at least we have a better sense now of how to mitigate COVID risks. (Yes, yes, “not hosting massive superspreader events” is indeed an excellent COVID mitigation tactic.) It’s at least plausible that all stakeholders might slip into and out of the Olympics relatively unscathed.
As for not requiring vaccinations, look, if I squint, I can almost justify this decision. The regulatory system for international sport is absurdly complicated and it’s very possible that the IOC just wouldn’t have been able to pull that mandate off without stepping on a billion toes and possibly imperiling the Games. It’s also worth saying that the IOC did procure a ton of vaccines, which it offered to any and all athletes who wanted them, according to the Times. The results, at least in the United States, were mixed. According to NBC News, there are roughly 100 American Olympians (out of 613 total American Olympians) who are currently unvaccinated. Jonathan Finnoff, the chief medical officer for the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, told the Times that while there were some athletes who welcomed the vaccine, there were others “who don’t believe that the virus exists and that it’s a global conspiracy and that the vaccine is a tracking device.” Being good at sports doesn’t necessarily mean that you are also good at logic. That’s not the IOC’s fault.
Finally, Eddie the Eagle stunk at ski jumping and it was probably a good thing that the IOC changed the rules so that he didn’t qualify for the Albertville Games. The guy would have eventually killed himself. Thanks for saving Eddie the Eagle’s life, IOC!
Jerk score: Just to refresh everyone’s memory, we grade our Olympics Jerk Watch candidates on style, technical merit, and execution. I’ll give the IOC 2.5 out of 3 for style, because its executives are always impeccably dressed. I’ll give them 2 out of 3 for technical merit, because it would have been jerkier to say that the Olympics would only proceed if Tokyo were under a state of emergency. 2.5 out of 3 for execution, because real jerks would have taken all those vaccines and playfully tossed them over the side of the yacht on which they were having lunch. And 1 out of 1 in the category of “did they make the CEO of Softbank mad at them on Twitter?” 8 out of 10 for the International Olympic Committee. Next!