Tokyo Hosts a Dangerous Paralympics in the Shadow of Covid

The Tokyo Paralympics are set to kick off on August 24 under a merciless cloud of Covid-19. Many regions in Japan are experiencing record Covid infections, driven by the Delta variant. The health care system is being stretched to its limits. As with the Tokyo 2020 Olympics that preceded them, the Paralympics will transpire under a State of Emergency, which the Japanese government recently extended through September 12 in numerous prefectures, including Tokyo. Despite much-vaunted strictures in the so-called “Olympic bubble,” more than 500 people associated with the Games have contracted the coronavirus.

To ram ahead with the Paralympics is to take a massive gamble with public health in Japan and the wider world. It also means risking the health of Paralympians, some of whom are immunocompromised and more susceptible to the ravages of Covid-19. To date, a whopping 144 people linked to the Paralympics have already tested positive for Covid-19.

Masami Aoki, director of the Japan Women’s Medical Association, told The Nation, “The hospitals surrounding Tokyo are almost full. After the Olympics started, the number of Covid infections exploded across Japan, and 70 percent of doctors in Japan view the Games as the cause.” Dr. Aoki noted that the number of positive coronavirus cases associated with the Paralympics is already rising. “I am worried that if the Paralympics are held, the lives of athletes may not be guaranteed. We may not be able to provide adequate medical care.” She punctuated her remarks by saying, “I think that we must stop the Paralympics.”

The Paralympic athlete community is not a homogeneous group; after all, the Paralympic Games feature athletes from 10 impairment classifications, from leg length difference to vision impairment. With such a wide range of health conditions in play, it makes sense that, as an editorial published in The New England Journal of Medicine noted, “some Paralympic athletes could be in a higher-risk category” for Covid-19. Athletes with respiratory disorders are especially at risk.

The International Paralympic Committee itself pointed out that “some athletes could be more vulnerable” to coronavirus complications. More specifically, Paralympians “with cervical spinal cord lesions may have a greater risk of developing respiratory complications…due to weakness and mobility restriction of the chest wall.” Furthermore: “Spinal cord injury is also independently associated with other conditions such as diabetes type II and cardiovascular disease, which are known risk factors for increased morbidity due to COVID.”

The roots of the Paralympics stretch back to the 1940s, when Ludwig Guttmann started using sports as part of the rehabilitation process for people who had suffered spinal cord injuries. His goal was twofold: the social reintegration of people with disabilities and the wider cultural project of changing societal perceptions about disability. After staging numerous “Stoke Mandeville Games” between 1948 and 1959—featuring sports like archery and swimming—the first Paralympics conducted in parallel with the Olympics took place in 1960 in Rome. Beginning in 1988, each Summer Paralympic Games has commenced around two weeks after the Olympics; the Tokyo Paralympics follow this pattern.

When we asked disability advocate Liz Jackson to identify the positive aspects of pressing ahead with the Paralympics, she replied, “I don’t think there are any pros to staging the Paralympics at this time.”

ack in July, Jackson—a founding member of Disabled List, a design collective that uses creative practice and social friction to expand modes of access for the disabled—predicted on Twitter that the Paralympics would be canceled because the International Olympic Committee would slam ahead and in doing so contribute to the rise in Covid in ways that would make the Paralympics untenable. She told The Nation that with Olympic organizers, “it felt like there was no long game. They were trying to keep Covid at bay for two weeks, and there was no concern about what would happen after the fact.”

Jackson saw right through the gauzy propaganda emerging from Olympic boosters that there was no relationship between the Tokyo Olympics and Japan’s Covid spiral: “They had to know they were creating a spike that would coincide with the Paralympics.” Olympic organizers, she said, were willing “to sacrifice the Paralympics for the Olympics. To me, their disregard for the health of Japanese citizens reflects their perceptions of Paralympic athletes. They’re sacrificial lambs.”

Leroy Moore of the influential disability athletic advocacy group Krip Hop Nation concurred, writing simply, “Postpone.”

Then there is the Tokyo metropolitan government, which is insisting over the objections of Tokyo’s Board of Education that children be sent to Paralympic events for “educational purposes.” Sending children—many of whom we can assume to be under 12—to public events amid a pandemic only shows the break with reality that far too many in power in Tokyo are experiencing. Decisions such as these, as well as decrees to go full steam ahead with the Paralympics, are not merely the result of drinking the mega-event Kool-Aid. It’s because some people’s political survival at this point depends upon selling the idea that everything is going to be just fine. They are ignoring Japanese citizens’ impassioned and reasonable cries that the emperor is buck naked.

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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