Citius, Altius, Business: The Olympic Movement is reducing itself to a farce by staging the Tokyo Games

The decision to organize the Tokyo Olympics from July 23 has opened up a Pandora’s Box of controversies related to the approach of the International Olympic Committee, holding a mega event amid a pandemic, and democracy in the world of sport

June 17, 2021 by Leslie Xavier
A protester opposes the conduct of the Tokyo Olympics. Photo: The Guardian/Twitter

With a little over a month left until the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics — slated to be held from July 23 to August 8 — the Games’ local organizing body and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) have now reached the point of no return. They call it the Games Delivery mode, while the whole of Japan hangs on tenterhooks, fearing the worst.

The show must and will go on, insists the IOC, with the Japanese government extending its full support despite rising clamor in the country for cancellation or postponement. Japan has its hands tied though and it is not just about the financial ramifications involved. There is a clause in the contract between the host city and the IOC which prevents the former from cancelling the event. Only the Olympic body can do so and in case the hosts pull out, financial and legal repercussions will follow.

The 2013 contract between Tokyo and the IOC gives the latter an upper hand. For instance, Clause 72 states that if the Japanese government is to pass a public health regulation which has a negative impact on the hosting of the event, it could be considered a breach of contract. That would justify termination of the contract by the IOC. Under such a scenario, Tokyo would have to bear the costs for the preparations to date and indemnify the IOC from any third-party claims, actions or judgements. However, the IOC is not obliged to cancel the event, even if the organizers were to invoke unforeseen circumstances (a force majeure kind of clause).

Cancelling the Games would cost Japan upwards of $16 billion (¥1.81 trillion). However, experts believe that the loss would still be much less than the economic burden the country will suffer if the Games lead to a nationwide lockdown or emergency. This is the reason for the widespread apprehension in Japan. The larger takeaway is in the power dynamics, a private entity, the IOC, has a larger say than the collective will of the citizens of a sovereign nation.

Even as the reality of the business of big sport plays out in its own make-believe “safe” world,  the host nation, protocols and safety measures notwithstanding, is bracing for possible impact. The hope is that the health infrastructure will be able to cope in case the Games turn out to be a super spreader as feared by many experts.

On the face of it, Japan seems to have managed the pandemic much better than many countries, and far better than India and the US. But much like the rest of the world, they are in a critical situation with the vaccination campaign not running at the pace health experts would have liked it to. That would leave a large segment of the population susceptible to infection by the time the biggest sporting event in the world comes to town. Then again, vaccination, it has become apparent, does not necessarily prevent infection, but only renders it milder. So, the threat of a surge in cases is very real.

The infections peaked mid-May in Japan with around 75,000 active cases (77,567 on May 17) and a daily addition of 7,500 (7,766 on May 9) new cases. This was the time when the health infrastructure in cities like Osaka — third biggest in the country and just two-and-a-half hours away by bullet train from Tokyo — imploded with a surge in cases. The peak in May arrived after a lull period of a couple of months, when public health measures were relaxed following a previous peak in January. At the time of writing, Japan’s average hovered around 30,000 active cases (30,854 on June 14), while the daily increase in the caseload was around 2,000 (1,526 on June 14). Juxtapose this with the fact that the original Games, in 2020, were postponed at a time when Japan had 865 cases against a global statistic of 385,000 active cases. The irony is apparent, isn’t it?

Again, these numbers are significantly less than those in many other nations who have been hit hard by the pandemic. But then, we also know that in the case of COVID-19, statistical comparison of numbers can present a skewed picture, not necessarily corresponding to reality. The fact is that Japanese authorities cannot afford to throw caution to the winds and host a sporting party in which approximately 11,000 athletes and 4,000 support staff from more than 200 countries will gather for a fortnight of competition. A month later, another 5,000 athletes and additional staff will attend the Paralympics.

Statistical models have projected that with restrictions in place and the current rate of vaccinations, there will be a daily caseload of around 800 by September. However, even a small increase in people’s movement and social interaction can trigger a spike. And, as far as numbers go, the Olympics is no minor public event.

The IOC cites various sporting events that were staged across the world in the past one year to justify the push to hold the event. Needless to say, these events, including the ongoing European football championships and Copa America in South America, are on a much smaller scale as far as the participants are concerned.

Although the IOC insists that its playbook — which stipulates protocols for the contingents, as well as operational guidelines for the authorities — will ensure a safe Games, we have seen from cluster spreads of COVID-19 across the world that there cannot be any guarantee. And experts have, over the course of the past few weeks, pointed out oversights in the playbook too. They are not set in concrete, insists the IOC, and will evolve. According to experts, that is another cause of worry: the organizers themselves seem to be unsure what will work and what won’t, and have also been less forthcoming in giving assurances to the public. A lack of clarity in everything has alarmed skeptics and rightfully so.

The safety of the Games, as well as that of the host nation, depends on many factors. And with fast-spreading mutant variants doing the rounds in many countries whose athletes will convene in Tokyo, there are very pertinent reasons to worry for the world, and immediately so for Japan. No wonder the Japanese people — surveys suggest more than 80% oppose the Games — even took to the streets to urge the government to convince the IOC for a cancellation. That, obviously, will never happen because the revenue at stake (estimated to be around $7 billion excluding the money coming in from the broadcast rights) for the Olympic “movement” is huge, bigger, as it is evident from the actions, even than lives.

In the rush to push for the staging of the Games, the Olympic movement has reiterated what has already been there on the walls. Its larger ideals are all but diluted in the interest of business. That is the priority. Safety concerns, people’s wishes, and democracy have fallen by the wayside. The Games will be staged. The drive towards “beating the pandemic” could have repercussions beyond Japan and even on the sporting future of the world.

Is that a risk worth taking for the IOC? Are the Games itself a risk worth taking for Japan and the world? These are questions that should have been answered by now. Instead the world is still debating, still divided.

There are means, mandated by science, on how to control and even beat the pandemic. The bottom line reads: through a universal vaccination policy while ensuring that no fresh avenues are created for spreading of the virus. The Olympic movement — with the World Health Organization (WHO) in tow as partners to set up safety protocols — obviously feels the answer lies elsewhere, in holding the event. It will provide a symbolic high or triumph of the human spirit, and many other PR taglines. It’s just that premature celebration of symbolic victories is exactly what has taken many countries to the precarious situation they are in at the moment.

As things stand though, nothing is open to debate or consideration. What we learnt — both via science, as well as the larger philosophical meaning of the value of human life and existence in this pandemic — should have been a guiding light while taking decisions that could have an impact on the present and a lasting mark on the future. Unfortunately, that, as well as the acceptance of the majority view of the masses, have been thrashed by Tokyo 2020 (Tokyo 2021).

Then again, we already know that democracy has been one of the casualties of COVID-19, and that has opened up a Pandora’s box of questions surrounding the Olympics. Who are the players here? What are the Games being played? For whom? And who will end up winning?