Will the Olympics Be a Fiasco?

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S1: The very first question I had for sportswriter Henry Bushnell was, ah, the Summer Olympics going to happen?

S2: Yes, tentatively.

S1: Henry writes for Yahoo! Sports, that means right now he is drumming his fingers, seeing if he should buy a ticket to Japan.

S2: I think most people are assuming that they will indeed happen despite a lot of pushback. But given everything that’s going on in the world, giving everything that’s going on specifically in Japan, given everything that has happened over the past year and specifically last March when the Olympics were postponed, there’s still a lot of unease throughout the Olympic world. I think it’s fair to say. I think I don’t think anybody can be 100 percent sure.

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S1: One thing is certain, if they happen, the Olympics are going to be weird, they’re supposed to start July twenty third of this year, twenty twenty one. But the games are still going to be called the 2020 Olympics. This is a decision that seems to have been made primarily for merchandising reasons. After Olympics organizers postponed last year’s games due to the coronavirus,

S2: they figured we’re just going to put all those T-shirts and everything and mascots and stuffed animals and stuff in warehouses for a year and roll it back out with the Tokyo 2020 name.

S1: So you’re telling me this is a business decision?

S2: Definitely a business decision. Yes.

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S1: Turns out a lot of the decisions are on the Olympics are business decisions, which is making the people of Japan uncomfortable during a pandemic. When the Olympic torch was carried through the city of Nagano back in April, it was met by protesters, held signs reading, cancelled the Olympics and focus on coronavirus countermeasures. But if you were watching all this on Japanese television, you might not have heard their chants. Someone faded down the audio while the torch relay was being broadcast to Henry. That incident is typical of the way the International Olympic Committee, the IOC and its stakeholders like the Japanese government are behaving right now.

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S2: Their strategy here in a lot of ways, maybe not so much to the government, but the IOC and the organizers have been to try to maybe not suppress dissent, but just ignore it and act like it doesn’t exist and plow ahead with the games.

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S1: How is that strategy working out for them?

S2: It’s certainly not working out because everybody, the entire world is picking up on Japanese public opinion and the games will probably happen. But this is going to be the story throughout the games. Everything all the opposition and whether this does contribute to a public health crisis.

S1: Today on the show, the Olympic opposition with 100000 people about to stream into Japan, how safe can it be? I’m Mary Harris. You’re listening to what next? Stick around. I think it helps to just rewind and talk about last year. Tokyo is set to host the Summer Olympics and they were pretty pumped about it, right?

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S2: They were. And I think a lot of there was genuine enthusiasm for the games in Tokyo. And in fact, a lot of people in the international community were of the opinion that these were going to be some of the some of the best Olympic Games ever.

S1: Why the best?

S2: Because it’s Tokyo and because it’s a great big metropolis welcoming to visitors. There was tremendous enthusiasm in Japan in terms of ticket sales. The Olympic Games get bigger and grander every four years. And Tokyo seemed very prepared. Yes, they’d spent a lot of money, but the money, the money was put to good use from an Olympic perspective.

S1: And for Japan, this was kind of a comeback. Right after a bunch of national tragedies,

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S2: they were very much sold as the recovery games. I think that was one of one of the taglines, obviously, the tsunami and, yes, various disasters. There’s a lot of skepticism of that sort of branding and selling the games as that. And in many cases, the Olympics, rather than mark a actual recovery kind of paper over lack of recovery from in a lot of ways. Interesting. But yes, that was what they were supposed to be and they were going to be a huge fun international festival until, you know, February of twenty twenty.

S1: Yeah, and it’s it’s worth remembering how quickly the narrative around the Olympics changed, like March 17th, Olympics organizers were saying they were fully committed to having the Olympic Games on schedule. And an IOC, the International Olympic Committee, a member said you you just don’t postpone something the size and the scale of the Olympics. Like fast forward one week the games were postponed.

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S2: It flipped in about 48 hours. And that’s why people are so wary. Now, the IOC official party line wasn’t even mentioning postponement until like March twenty first or twenty second or something like that. And on March twenty fourth, the games were postponed.

S1: So they didn’t really slow roll this and get people ready. They just sort of said, boom, this is it.

S2: Exactly. The IOC is full steam ahead because they kind of have to be, I get it. But at any point they could decide, OK, we’re not full steam ahead anymore.

S1: So what are the games supposed to look like this year and how does that compare to previous Olympics? Like my impression of a normal Olympics is that it’s kind of a party atmosphere. I remember articles from previous years about how many condoms the Olympic Village gives away because this is a fun party for a bunch of super fit people.

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S2: Yes, 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 and

S1: hope they still have roommates.

S2: Apparently, that’s the last I heard. OK, it’s very questionable, but it’s very clear they will be 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.

S1: Yeah. How different are the crowds going to be?

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S2: So 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. And I think that’s a somewhat natural compromise over the next month to appease all the Japanese who are opposed to the games and also appease the athletes. And the IOC would be to say, OK, we’re not going to have any fans that’s going to suppress any covid spread related to the Olympics among the outside Japanese population. And it’ll be strange, but it’ll happen.

S1: It’s just so weird because part of the way the Olympics makes sense is because there are tickets and there are people making money off of it and there are tourists coming in and there are people going to restaurants. And it sounds like so much of that will not be going on.

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S2: The one big thing, though, is that there will still be TV broadcasts and, you know, ninety nine point five percent of people who experience the Olympic Games in some way do so via TV, even in a normal year. And the vast majority of money is tied to the TV contracts and and the sponsors.

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S1: So are the athletes going to be required to be vaccinated, for instance?

S2: No requirement. The IOC recently said that they believe that already seventy five percent of athletes are vaccinated or seventy five percent of people who will be in the Olympic Village. I have no idea where they’re getting that number from. And frankly, it strikes me as a bit fishy because, for example, the US Olympic Committee, which is the biggest Olympic committee and will be sending them probably the most athletes and where the vaccine is widely available, they aren’t they have said that they are not tracking vaccination. There are no mandates. There are no there’s no way to keep track of any of this.

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S1: It’s interesting because in my mind, the analogue for the Olympics is the NBA bubble from last year, where similarly they had a document that they released about their rules and they tested people regularly and they tried to kind of keep people locked down. But it sounds like what the IOC is doing is like the bubble lite and also with less accountability. If I’m hearing you correctly, about, for instance, that vaccine information.

S2: Yes, it’s it’s bubble night and it’s also ten times the size of the NBA bubble in terms of how many people will be there. And coming from a much wider expanse of territory, obviously, people will be coming from the round around the world. The NBA design their bubble in consultation with the players association. There was bargaining there. The IOC and organizers are just making these decisions on their own. Athletes are not being consulted here at all. And the IOC is just going to has the authority to say, here’s what we think is safe. Here’s what we think is right. Let’s do it

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S1: tough norgay’s if you don’t like it.

S2: Yes. And not not only that, athletes will be forced to sign waivers that say that they are responsible for any sort of covid infection or any complications.

S1: Wow. I didn’t know about that. That’s pretty. Wow. So it sounds like there are some precautions in place, but let’s talk a little bit about who is expressing concern about the Olympics. It sounds like the Japanese people are really concerned. I saw this one statistic that 80 percent of Japanese residents said they did not want the games to happen, either have them canceled or postponed. Doctors and nurses saying that they can’t handle more covid cases if that’s what happens here. This sounds like pretty robust lack of support for what’s about to happen.

S2: It is. It’s interesting in a way, because Japan has had what they are what they’ve called their fourth wave of covid recently, and yet their case rates are still much lower than they were in the US at any point over the past year, really, and even than they are now. We’re obviously in a much better spot in the US now, but there is still covid is still more prevalent in a lot of American communities than it is in Tokyo right now. But there is much less there’s a much lower risk threshold in in Japan. And the medical system is apparently very much overburdened right now. And hospitals are struggling to deal with an influx of patients related to covid. So there’s one fear that the Olympics will be sapping medical resources. There’s another fear that the Olympics will introduce covid into the Tokyo community, that people from outside will come with covid and will spread it amongst themselves and or to Japanese people. This is a third concern that the Olympics going on in the city will give people a sense that things are normal and they’ll contribute to gatherings of different sizes, and that even if there is no interaction between the Olympic quote unquote, bubble and the outside world, that it still could impact covid case rates in in Tokyo

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S1: just because the impression having the Olympics leaves. Exactly. Exactly. It’s interesting, you said, you know, what they call their fourth wave in Japan, because it sounds like you’re saying that the infection rate is not really that high, like Japan doesn’t look, for instance, like India does right now.

S2: Definitely not. One of the points of comparison for Japan is other Asian countries that have controlled the pandemic better. Other countries in the Eastern Hemisphere. So like Korea has been better, I believe certainly Australia and New Zealand have been better. There are 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 here. They’re way lower than what a lot of places in Europe have seen.

S1: And part of the concern is that not very many people in Japan are vaccinated, right?

S2: Yes, exactly. It’s well, I think it’s we’re at three percent, maybe creeping up to four percent right now.

S1: Here’s what I don’t get about that, which is that the Japanese government knew that the Olympics were going to happen. So you would think that you would prioritize getting as much vaccine as possible because you knew you were going to have a big event in your country like this summer.

S2: You would think. You would think. But there have been a variety of issues here. The approval process for vaccines developed in other countries is a lot more stringent in Japan. And they didn’t get a vaccine approved until February. I believe the rollout process has been bad. But yeah, the bottom line is very few Japanese people are are vaccinated right now. They are trying to ramp up, but it’s very clear that they are not going to be able to get to over 50 percent of the population vaccinated by the time the Olympics begin on July twenty third.

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S1: Here’s something I was hoping you could clarify for me. I noticed that just in the last few weeks here in the U.S., the CDC and the State Department, they’ve started coming out and recommending against travel to Japan. And I wanted to ask you what you thought that meant. Like, is that a recommendation aimed at athletes? Because fans of the games, they’re already not going in. Japan has already said you can’t come spectate. So what is that recommendation? Who’s it for?

S2: It doesn’t seem to be for anybody. It’s a very strange news story that I’ve been told by various people has absolutely zero impact on the Olympics because, as you said, all sorts of travel to Japan is currently banned. So a recommendation from the US government that its citizens not travel to Japan is pretty meaningless. And from what everybody is saying, won’t have any impact on the Olympics because everybody involved with the Olympics is going to be treated as an exception to whatever international travel policies the Japanese government has in place at the time. So I really have no idea what to make of that that travel advisory. But my gut is and the sources I’ve spoken to have basically said it’s pretty meaningless.

S1: After the break, why Henry Bushnell thinks this mess could lead to a widespread re-evaluation of the Olympic Games, is this event just a shameless boondoggle?

S3: I think the

S1: debate over the Olympics right now, part of the reason it’s interesting to me is it raises this much bigger question that I’d like to talk to you about, which is who are the Olympics for? Like who are they serving? And I think in previous years, without a pandemic, you know, everyone gets behind the Olympics because they’re it’s a battle over national pride. And host cities can get tourist money and athletes can do something amazing and fans can watch them do it. But the pandemic is sort of throwing all of those incentives off and weird ways. Do you agree?

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S2: Yeah, I think the pandemic is exposing a lot of problems with the Olympics,

S1: like what

S2: the Olympics are good for. Foreign fans who watch on TV, they’re good for the athletes, 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. And for the longest time, in the lead up to games and in the bidding process for games, the host city and country have been able to sell them 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 or anything like that. You can argue that cities can make back a lot of that money in tourism industry revenue and stuff like that. But I think it’s becoming more and 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 that much out of the games beyond this, beyond two weeks of fun. Essentially, what the International Olympic Committee does is they force Tokyo, they force their 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.

S1: You say force, but the host cities vie for the honor of hosting the games. Right. But when you say that out loud, it sounds like they’re a bunch of chumps.

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S2: It’s getting more and more unpopular to bid for the Olympics. It has been. The reason cities do it is very much intangible. It’s the international prestige that you get from hosting the Olympics. And that’s why you see a lot of countries like China, for example, 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.

S1: I mean, you’ve said the IOC hold cities hostage,

S2: it’s this extremely one sided contract that they signed with every host city who wins wins the right, the quote unquote, right to host the games. It gives most of the revenue to the IOC and it keeps all of the risk, which we’re seeing come to the surface now onto the host city. The IOC is the only one with the right to cancel these games to make any sort of changes to the plan to the host contract. Whereas if Tokyo were to try to get out of this, they would be on the hook for billions of dollars in damages. They would have to cover the IOC legally if the IOC were to be sued by broadcasters or sponsors for not delivering on their deals.

S1: Yes. So let me just see if I understand this correctly. So the International Olympic Committee. Has all of the decision making authority here about whether the games take place, but if they cancelled the games or if the games went forward, whatever, the only people who have the risk, the monetary exposure is the host country.

S2: Yes, the host country and the organising committee have to indemnify the IOC basically in all ways. And they have to waive all sorts of legal protections when they sign this contract, which they signed way back in twenty thirteen. So, yes, the IOC, the IOC profits and the host cities bear all the risk.

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S1: You know, the International Olympic Committee has said. The reason we’re doing this is for the athletes, do you think that’s fair

S2: to some extent? Well, it’s 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 that they’re probably doing it for both of those things. And I think there are people at the IOC who genuinely do have the athlete’s best interests in mind. But there are a lot of other cases where the IOC has shown that it is IOC first, athletes second.

S1: When is the time when they’ve kind of left the athletes behind,

S2: you know, the basic economic structure of the Olympics where athletes don’t get that much money for competing in the Olympics 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 that the IOC forces them to conform to what the IOC wants. Hmm.

S1: I wonder if you talk to any athletes who may be feeling this kind of internal division. I mean, 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 you want to prove yourself. So are there any stories of athletes that that stand out to you who are trying to make this decision about what they do here?

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S2: No, the vast majority of them do want to compete for all the reasons you just mentioned. And it’s also that. If you think about three years and 11 months in between Olympic Games, if you put that to if you if you if you outright cancel these Olympics and make it seven years and 11 months in between Olympics, that’s the span of a lot of Olympians. Entire careers like that’s their window to to have this chance to accomplish a lifelong dream, never mind money or anything like that. People just their dreams and they put so much time and energy. And there is that just that tension within within their minds of the pandemic versus their own dreams.

S1: I wonder if you think whatever happens with this Olympics is going to trickle down to future Olympics and how 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?

S2: I think that’s absolutely I think it’s a great call and that’s absolutely what’s going to happen. And it was already getting increasingly unpopular to bid for the Olympics. And that’s why, for example, Beijing is going to host the Winter Games in eight months, 14 years after hosting the Summer Games in 2008. The reason for that is 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 acknowledge this and realize that they are starting to make more concessions to host cities and just try to make hosting the Olympics more viable. But it’s still very one sided. And I think this whole saga is setting off alarm bells and a lot of people’s minds who might potentially bid for future Olympics that, you know, there’s a lot more downside here than we realize and maybe there’s less upside than we realize as well. And maybe this isn’t something we should do.

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S1: Henry’s been asking people if they think the Tokyo Olympics will go on. He says most folks give it a 90 percent chance the games are going to happen. When I asked how many of those people think the games should happen,

S2: you know, I think I think they

S1: should happen. You want to go to the Olympics? I would want to go to the Olympics.

S2: I’d be OK. Go into the Olympics.

S1: Henry Bushnell, thank you so much

S2: for joining me. Appreciate it. Mary.

S1: Henry Bushnell is a features writer for Yahoo! Sports, and that’s our show, What Next is produced by Davis Land, Kamal Dilshad, Daniel Hewitt, Elena Schwartz and Mary Wilson. Our fearless leaders are Allison Benedikt and Alicia Montgomery. And I’m Mary Harris. You can track me down on Twitter. I’m at Mary’s desk. I hope you had a great holiday weekend if you were celebrating. I’ll talk to you tomorrow.