Should the Tokyo Games be cancelled?
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As the world continues to battle with new waves of the COVID-19 pandemic, is it safe enough to continue with Tokyo 2020?

The world continues to struggle with the COVID-19 pandemic. Many countries, such as India, are witnessing devasting second and third waves of the virus. At the same time, a wide variety of stakeholders, including athletes and organisers, are preparing for the already postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games to be held in Japan in just over two months from now. Is it ethically correct and morally prudent to continue with the Games given that the world continues to grapple with this pandemic?

Athlete safety

The participation of athletes from around the world forms the backbone of the Olympic movement and without their active participation, the Games would not be successful. However, the huge disparities revealed by the COVID-19 pandemic have started trickling down to athletes from some countries, who will miss the Games. More importantly, the safety of the athletes given the ongoing pandemic and recent surge in cases in Japan is also in question.

Though the International Olympic Committee (IOC) has recently partnered with Pfizer and BioNTech to receive vaccines for participating athletes at Tokyo 2020, this agreement does not guarantee the immunisation of all athletes. Given the global supply bottlenecks of vaccines, it is unlikely that the majority of the athletes will be vaccinated before the Games.

For the whole of Tokyo 2020, the athletes will be kept in ‘bubbles.’ While these sporting ‘bubbles’ have worked in many cases, the recent burst of the ‘bubble’ during the Indian Premier League (IPL) is a warning for the organisers of Tokyo 2020. The breach of the bubble at the IPL led to multiple cricketers and support staff, many from abroad, testing positive for COVID-19. Some players were then unable to go back home given that many countries have red-listed India.

Host country apprehensions

Recent polls have suggested that the majority of Japanese people would prefer either a cancellation or further postponement of the Games, with over 80% of the Japanese population against hosting the Games. Some host towns have even pulled out of the Games, and have declined to host participating athletes.

Given the lack of public support, it is uncertain whether fans and spectators will be able to enjoy the Olympic and Paralympic Games while navigating a potential health crisis. Similarly, many spectators across the world might not be able to tune into and appreciate the Games due to the upheaval the pandemic is causing in their lives.

The apprehension of the Japanese public stems from concerns about health risks for the general population. Vaccination efforts in Japan have been slow, with only 2.2% of its population being inoculated, the slowest among wealthy nations. It is unlikely that the Japanese government would be able to vaccinate its 36 million elderly people in time for the start of the Games, let alone the entire adult population, making it a potential health hazard for spectators.

Though it has not yet been decided if the Games will be held behind closed doors, if the Japanese public are allowed to enter stadiums, this would constitute another risk that could lead to a further increase in cases in Japan. Indeed, some in India have pointed to large gatherings of people at sporting events as one of the causes for the second wave there.

New guidelines released by IOC in their latest playbook state that participating athletes will be exempt from a 14-day quarantine upon arrival to allow them to train. Athletes will also undergo daily testing. This will take significant medical resources to carry out, which will put further stress on Japan’s healthcare system, which is already stretched due to the pandemic.

Should the Games continue?

Most athletes are looking forward to participating in Tokyo 2020, given the years of hard work and dedication that they have put into excelling at their sports. There are, however, some athletes who have conveyed their ethical dilemma of whether to participate. At the end of the day, it is for the IOC and the organisers of Tokyo 2020 to take a final call.

However, the IOC and Tokyo 2020 organising committee must consider the following:

  • Can the health and safety of athletes, coaches, referees, support staff and others be ensured?
  • Can athletes be ensured a fair chance of competing at Tokyo 2020, given the risk of infection and restrictions due to COVID-19?
  • Can it be ensured that the Games will not worsen the prevailing COVID-19 situation in Japan?
  • Can it be ensured that the Games do not put unnecessary pressure on the Japanese healthcare system and take medical resources away from the local population?

If the IOC and the organisers of Tokyo 2020 cannot ensure the above, they must rethink their decision to continue with the Olympics this year.

This might lead to significant monetary loss, not just for the IOC and Japan but also world sports governing bodies as well as potential loss of livelihoods for many athletes. But human life should always take precedence over monetary considerations. Further, there could be added significant human and financial costs associated with hosting the Games, not only the logistics required during the event (e.g., to test athletes daily) but also in the case that it leads to a worsened pandemic in Japan and globally. This could also affect the reputation and standing of the Olympic movement and broader sport sector.

Thus, at such a critical time we ask: should the Tokyo Games be cancelled?