Why Haven’t the Olympics Been Canceled Yet?

The Tokyo 2020 Olympics should be canceled. If this wasn’t already obvious, it should be now, after the Japanese Olympic Committee’s deputy chief, Kozo Tashima, revealed on Tuesday that he has tested positive for the coronavirus. In fact, these Olympic Games should have been shut down a long time ago. It’s an absurdity that we are even still having this conversation. And yet, just this week, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told reporters, “I want to hold the Olympics and Paralympics perfectly, as proof that the human race will conquer the new coronavirus, and I gained support for that from the G-7 leaders.”

This is an irresponsible, borderline sociopathic response to the global pandemic that has shuttered the sports world. The NBA, NHL, MLB, and Major League Soccer have all suspended their seasons. The Masters golf tournament, Kentucky Marathon, and Boston Marathon have all been nixed. Even the NCAA put its cash-cow event, March Madness, back in the barn. On Tuesday, the Euro 2020 and Copa América soccer tournaments were postponed until 2021. FIFA, soccer’s governing body, has voiced approval for the postponements. Yes, even the notoriously ghoulish, ethically challenged FIFA is ahead of its fellow honchos at the IOC. Those tournaments were originally scheduled for June and July, close to the time frame of the Tokyo Olympics, which are slated to kick off on July 24.

So why haven’t the Olympic games been canceled? Each Olympic city is required to sign a host city contract with the IOC that puts locals on the hook for cost overruns. The contract also affords the IOC enormous latitude to withdraw the Games. One section of the 81-page Tokyo 2020 host city contract states that the IOC can terminate the contract and yank the Games “if the IOC has reasonable grounds to believe, in its sole discretion, that the safety of participants in the Games would be seriously threatened or jeopardised for any reason.”

The coronavirus certainly imperils “the safety of participants in the Games.”

This means that it is not Prime Minister Abe, nor anyone in the host country for that matter, who has the final word on whether the show in fact goes on. That responsibility—or “sole discretion”—rests on the shoulders of the International Olympic Committee and its president, Thomas Bach, and thus far, the IOC’s belief—even in this climate—is that the Olympics are too big to fail. Bach’s perspective on the situation is that

Nineteen weeks before the opening ceremony of the Games we are strengthened in our commitment by many organizations around the world taking significant measures to contain the spread of the coronavirus.

He was backed by the head of the Tokyo 2020 organizing committee, former prime minister Yoshiro Mori, who dubbed the idea of delaying or canceling the Games “outrageous.”

This too-big-to-fail philosophy has not served us well. In the world of the Olympics, the ethos has been used to squeeze more funds out of local taxpayers to stage the Games. Let’s not forget that when Tokyo 2020 boosters say the Games cost a relatively modest $12.6 billion, the original cost listed in the bid book was $7.3 billion and the Japanese financial newspaper Nikkei estimated overall costs to be $28 billion. It’s time to jam a wooden stake in the heart of the vampiric too-big-to-fail paradigm, and the Olympics are a great place to make a statement.

Veteran Olympics reporter Philip Hersh recently wrote, “One of the IOC’s bedrock (but disingenuous) claims is that everything about the Olympics is done for the sake of the athletes.” The IOC’s persistence in staging Tokyo 2020 this summer puts athletes in a stressful state of limbo.

Yes, cancellation would be awful for the athletes themselves, especially from the lesser-known sports, for whom the Tokyo Olympics were their best chance at advancing their careers. Many Olympic athletes from lesser-known sports go into debt to realize their Olympic dreams—more than 100 athletes have set up GoFundMe pages in the United States alone. One US fencer recently revealed that the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee provides her with only $300 a month, which translates to around $9.67 per day. Meanwhile, that very same committee paid a whopping $2.4 million severance package to its disgraced chief executive Scott Blackmun, even after he botched his handling of the horrific pattern of sexual abuse that wracked the US gymnastics program.

But it would be far worse if the Olympic Village becomes a vector for the virus, not only infecting the athletes but sending them home as carriers, further imperiling others. Even traveling to Tokyo—sharing air in germ-incubating titanium canisters known as airplanes—is a sketchy proposition. With people traveling to Tokyo from countries with enfeebled health care systems—such as the United States—the Games become a ghastly recipe for contagion.

Athletes are realizing that. France’s Kevin Mayer, world-record holder in the decathlon, said, “I would really like them to postpone the Games.” His statement has made the front pages in France. The problem is not just the games in July. Olympic pole vaulting champion Katerina Stefanidi of Greece made this point when she tweeted:

This is not about how things will be in 4 months. This is about how things are now. The IOC wants us to keep risking our health, our family’s health and public health to train every day? You are putting us in danger right now, today, not in 4 months.

The IOC often talks about how athletes are their primary concern. If that is actually the case, the group should dip into its reserve coffers—nearly $2 billion—to directly help out competitors in need.

Thomas Bach and Shinzo Abe also talk as if the mere thought of cancellation is simply too much for the world to bear. But the historical reality is that the Olympics have—quite correctly—taken time off in times of protracted crisis. There were no Olympics in 1916, 1940, and 1944 because of World Wars I and II, for example. It’s also worth remembering that the Olympics cloaked themselves in shame when, in 1972, under the orders of IOC President Avery Brundage, they continued even after armed militants from a Palestinian group kidnapped 11 Israeli coaches and athletes, killing two of them before a grisly gun battle in which all nine remaining Israelis, five Palestinians, and a German police officer died. Afterwards, Brundage insisted, “The Games must go on.”

Brundage is now viewed with contempt for making this callous decision. Pushing ahead with the Tokyo Olympics in the coronavirus era would be that decision on designer steroids. Tokyo is not an option. Relocation not an option: if Tokyo is unsafe because of coronavirus, so is Rio de Janeiro and so is London. Plus, athletes are coming from around the world from places where coronavirus is raging. The United States, a key Olympic country, is lagging behind under laggard leadership.

The IOC’s foot-dragging also lays bare exactly why it is so insistent on the continuation of the games no matter the costs. This is about the money, the sponsors, and the billions invested in the project. It must be pointed out that the IOC and NBC have insurance, so this isn’t about their losing money. It’s about the money that they will not be earning. It’s about profits before it’s about the welfare of the athletes.

So, while the rest of the sports world wisely takes a time out, the IOC seems dead set on moving forward with the Tokyo 2020 Games. As Upton Sinclair famously noted, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.”

Dave Zirin is the author of the book: "Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports" (Haymarket). You can receive his column Edge of Sports, every week by going to dave@edgeofsports.com.
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