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What Does the Uncertain State of the Tokyo Games Reveal About the Olympic Model?

The IOC says “there is no plan B” for the Olympics in July. That not only shows the problems with trying to push forward amid a pandemic—it also shows the cracks in a system that has long been flawed.

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

You can tell the Olympics probably won’t happen in 2021 because the person in charge of them keeps publicly insisting that everything is fine. “We have, at this moment, no reason whatsoever to believe that the Olympic Games in Tokyo will not open on the 23rd of July in the Olympic Stadium in Tokyo,” Thomas Bach, the International Olympic Committee president, recently told Kyodo News. “There is no Plan B.” It sounds oddly reminiscent of the statement Bach put out last March as the coronavirus pandemic spread across the globe. “The IOC remains fully committed to the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020,” he said. “There is no need for drastic decisions at this stage. Any speculation at this moment would be counterproductive.” A week later, the IOC made the unprecedented decision to postpone the games until 2021.

Others involved in the Tokyo Olympics are now expressing doubts. Earlier in January, IOC member Dick Pound said he “can’t be certain” the games will go on. (The memorably named Pound was also among the first to suggest that the games would be postponed in 2020.) Japanese cabinet member Taro Kono said the decision to play the games “could go either way,” and that the Olympics should be considering “a Plan B, a Plan C.” On Thursday, The Times of London reported that Japan’s government believes the games are doomed, and that the country is focused on getting the IOC to grant them the 2032 Summer Olympics. “No one wants to be the first to say so,” said a senior member of the ruling coalition, “but the consensus is that it’s too difficult. Personally, I don’t think it’s going to happen.” While the Japanese government denies the Times report, it’s clear how things are trending. A poll of Japanese citizens revealed that 80 percent are against hosting the games this year. Bach is starting to sound like the Boy Who Cried the IOC Is Fully Committed to the Tokyo Games and Has No Reason to Believe They’ll Be Delayed.

When the IOC postponed the Olympics from 2020 to 2021, it figured that the coronavirus pandemic would go away at some point in the subsequent year. Instead, it’s ongoing, and worsening. Japan is in a state of emergency due to a new outbreak of the virus. Through December 1 of last year, Japan had just over 2,000 coronavirus deaths, a remarkably low figure for a country with 126 million people. According to the Japanese Ministry of Health, Japan has had more COVID-19 deaths in the seven weeks since December 1 than it did in the first 10 months of the pandemic. The nation recently had 16 consecutive days of record death totals. And Japan’s issues with the virus tell only part of the story.

Japan has had nearly 5,000 deaths from COVID-19; meanwhile, the United States, which routinely sends the largest delegation of athletes to the Olympics, has topped 4,000 coronavirus deaths per day four times this month. It seems like a remarkably bad idea to take people from nearly every nation on the planet—those handling COVID-19 well, those that aren’t, and every country in between—and make them live together for two weeks before sending everyone back home. (In December, Japan banned incoming travel from all foreign nationals; in six months, it will theoretically welcome people from all over the world.) Some have proposed that athletes get vaccinated to allow for a safe Olympics, but many countries would likely balk at having some of their healthiest citizens cut the line. And the IOC doesn’t seem interested in pushing the games another year, to the summer of 2022. The 2022 Winter Olympics are still on track to take place next February in Beijing.

The cancellation of these Olympics would be crushing for the athletes. The Summer Games are the main showcase for dozens of sports that would go eight full years without their marquee event. While it’s easy to point out the stars who wouldn’t get a chance to have the careers they wanted—Simone Biles was supposed to retire after competing in Tokyo; Katie Ledecky was supposed to show the whole world that she is the greatest of all time—I’d be even sadder for the athletes who wouldn’t get the chance to become stars in the first place. If the Tokyo Games happen, American sprinter Noah Lyles would have a very real chance to win all three gold medals (the 100-meter dash, the 200-meter dash, and the 4x100-meter relay) that Usain Bolt won at every Olympics from 2008 to 2016. World Championship medals are great and do just as much to prove an athlete’s talent level, but they simply don’t hold the same prestige as Olympic golds. There are athletes whose careers will peak and wane between 2016 and 2024. It’s a generation of heroes you’ll never meet.

Canceling the games would also be a massive loss for Japan, which has spent $15 billion to host them and wouldn’t be able to recoup it. (The saddest short story in sports: For Sale, Olympic Velodrome, Never Used.) The plan to have Tokyo host the games in 11 years wouldn’t be a financial salve either—if there’s one thing weirder than spending an absurd amount of money to build a bunch of venues for a two-week event, it’s spending an absurd amount of money to maintain those venues for more than a decade so they can be used for a two-week event in 2032.

But a cancellation would be understandable: The Olympics are the least practical event to hold during a pandemic. Considering the circumstances, the notion that tens of thousands of people from all over the globe would gather in one place for two weeks before flying back to their respective home nations is a recipe for disaster. There is nothing remotely similar in scale, which gets at a larger point: The Olympics are the least practical event to hold during the pandemic because they are the least practical event to hold in general.

The time has come to rethink the Olympics. Even prior to the pandemic, people had come to realize that the massive expenditures associated with hosting an Olympics are not beneficial for a host city. The Olympics brought financial devastation to Greece and Brazil, leading Calgary, Hamburg, and Budapest—cities you’d think would be thrilled to be the center of the world’s attention—to vote down Olympic bids, often by large margins. (Boston’s 2024 bid was never put to a vote, but polling showed Boston residents were against hosting.) And this was before anybody considered that a city might spend tens of billions to host an Olympic Games only for them to be canceled.

A few years ago, I suggested that the Olympics consider several options that wouldn’t be so onerous on hosts. Maybe the Olympics should be held simultaneously in a few cities across the globe, to prevent any one from having to construct dozens of stadiums; maybe the Olympics should be held in one city, but spread out over a whole year, to prevent duplicate stadium-building; maybe the Olympics should be held in the same place every four years, to prevent a different country from taking on extraordinary expenses every four years. The first two options would have made holding the Olympics more feasible during a pandemic by turning one massive event into a handful of smaller ones. All three options would have prevented one country from absorbing the massive expenditure of building the foundation for an Olympics that doesn’t take place.

The ideal of the Olympics is beautiful—that people from every country on the planet can gather in the same place and focus on trying to be their best. But the 21st century has revealed the ways in which trying to pull off this ideal can actually make the world worse. The ultimate demonstration of that would be athletes from one country starting an outbreak of a deadly virus in another country because they all had to live together for a couple of weeks in an attempt to prove it’s time for the world to unite. The people in charge of the Olympics have a responsibility to figure out how to ethically hold the games during a pandemic and beyond. Bach and the IOC may be proud that they don’t have a Plan B for the Tokyo Games, but they should have a backup plan to justify their continued existence.