A Covid Surge and Record Heat Have Created a Cursed Olympic Games

Even for the casual observer of the Olympics, it was clear way back in March 2020 that the International Olympic Committee was peddling phantasmagoria. In announcing its decision to postpone the Tokyo Olympics, the IOC said the Games would still be called “Tokyo 2020” even though the event would transpire in 2021. These days, such a willful suspension of reality is required to blind oneself to the ghoulish self-interest that has foisted the Olympics on an unwilling population during a health pandemic.

Holding these Olympics—the most complex sports mega-event in the world, involving more than 11,000 athletes and tens of thousands more in support staff—was a terrible idea. Public health professionals have been clear about this from the jump. On the eve of the Games, Dr. Masami Aoki of the Japan Women’s Medical Association said, “The Olympics are the last thing we should be having in the middle of the Covid-19 pandemic.” She added, “The Olympics must be stopped.”

Now, in Tokyo—and wider Japan—we’re witnessing the nightmare scenario that so many public health professionals predicted: surging coronavirus rates and hospitals on the brink. IOC President Thomas Bach made the ridiculous statement that the Olympics posed “zero” risk of spreading Covid in Japan. But, back in reality, nearly every day brings a new record for coronavirus cases. Meanwhile, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has offered the flimsy claim that the spike in cases has nothing to do with the Olympics. Tokyo Olympics CEO Toshiro Muto said, “I think we have been able to deal with Covid-19 at a level within expectations so far.” In other words, Olympic organizers are comfortable with a certain number of people getting Covid because of the games, as long as it is not too many—this is ghastly.

Tokyo-based AP sports reporter Stephen Wade, who also reported from Rio de Janeiro during the 2016 Olympics, noted on Twitter: “IOC says spike in virus has nothing to do with Olympics. False. People are out more. Celebrating Japan medals. More circulation on trains. In bars. Olympics over in 10 days. IOC will be gone. Japan cleans up mess, pays billion-dollar bills. IOC pays little, profits, and leaves.”

Dr. Annie Sparrow, who along with colleagues reviewed the IOC’s coronavirus preparations in The New England Journal of Medicine, excoriated the Olympic barons for installing “cheap measures that don’t work rather than scientifically proven ways that do.” Now, athletes are paying the price, with cases rising inside the Olympic Village, where athletes reside during the Games. As of this writing, there have been 259 positive cases of the coronavirus—and counting—within the Olympic zone since July 1. The so-called “Olympic bubble” is yet another outlandish myth that requires a suspension of disbelief. The bubble—if it ever existed—was punctured long ago.

When we visited Tokyo in July 2019, well before Covid enveloped the world, the main concern about the Tokyo Games leveled by everyday people was the stifling heat and humidity that Olympics-goers, including athletes, would face. Anyone with access to the Internet could tell you that staging the Games in July and August meant thrusting athletes into an extreme and perilous climate. The 1964 Tokyo Olympics were held in October for precisely that reason. Yet the original bid fr0m Tokyo blithely—and misleadingly—stated, “With many days of mild and sunny weather, this period provides an ideal climate for athletes to perform at their best.”

Tell that to the Olympic archery participant who suffered heat exhaustion. Or the tennis player who struggled to breathe while on the court. Or another who forfeited her match because of heatstroke before being rolled off the court in a wheelchair. According to Muto, 30 people have had to seek medical attention due to heat exhaustion.

The IOC was fully aware of this brutal reality. It mandated that athletes participating in the Tokyo Olympics sign waivers stating: “I agree that I participate in the Games at my own risk and own responsibility, including any impact on my participation to and/or performance in the Games, serious bodily injury or even death raised by the potential exposure to health hazards such the transmission of COVID-19 and other infectious disease or extreme heat conditions while attending the Games.” The waiver places the risk on athletes’ shoulders while insulating Olympic organizers from legal liability, even if an athlete dies from coronavirus or the punishing heat.

The Tokyo Olympics should dispel the myth that the IOC is “Putting Athletes First.” “The athletes, they’re not the priority,” historian David Wallechinsky told the The New York Times. “Television is the priority.” Wallechinsky is referring to the fact that holding the Tokyo Games in the summer months is advantageous to NBC—which, by some estimates, accounts for 40 percent of all IOC revenues—and other broadcasters.

We are left with an Olympics being performed in stifling heat, without spectators and with the constant threat of the pandemic stalking every move of the athletes involved, with the coronavirus numbers, in all its variants, breaking records throughout the country on a daily basis. Meanwhile, athletes are not helping to assuage the worst nightmares of Japanese residents, with some illegally carousing and drinking in groups. Among the Americans, the biggest story might involve anti-vaxxer swimmer Michael Andrew’s refusal to wear a mask.

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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