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On Sunday, the International Olympic Committee and Tokyo 2020 Olympic organizers at long last acknowledged that they are pondering alternative scenarios for the Olympics. After previously claiming that its Executive Board was not even considering “postponement,” the IOC acknowledged in an official statement that it “needs to take the next step in its scenario-planning.” The group bought itself four weeks to make a decision. To be clear, it also showed that its first priority was at some point to stage the Games, no matter what. As communicated on its website,
The IOC EB [Executive Board] emphasised that a cancellation of the Olympic Games Tokyo 2020 would not solve any of the problems or help anybody. Therefore, cancellation is not on the agenda.
Within hours of their announcement, the Canadian Olympic and Paralympic Committee issued a statement saying that it would not be sending its athletes to the Tokyo Olympics if they were held this summer. This was a bold move—a de facto boycott—and shortly afterward, the Australian Olympic Committee followed suit, telling its athletes to prepare for a 12-month postponement.
This sharp U-turn did not happen because the IOC had finally seen the light. It emerged only in reaction to a groundswell of anger as well as dissatisfaction from Olympic athletes, coaches, and administrators from around the world. USA Track and Field joined USA Swimming to call for postponement, uniting the two sports that haul in the medals for Team USA. US Olympic track legends Dick Fosbury and Ashton Eaton took to Twitter to advocate postponing. So did US swimmers Nathan Adrian and Jacob Pebley. In one survey of US athletes, 70 percent supported postponing the Tokyo Games.
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It is not only US athletes. Internationally, Olympic competitors and officials have been sounding the alarm: Kaori Yamaguchi of the Japanese Olympic Committee, Spain Olympic Committee President Alejandro Blanco, Irish Olympian Sonia O’Sullivan, India badminton coach Pullela Gopichand, four-time Olympian and CEO of Sport Ireland John Treacy, Norway’s National Olympic & Paralympic Committee, Brazil’s Olympic Committee, the Slovenian Olympic Committee… the list goes on and on. Thomas Bach and the IOC were being hit from all sides, and this tidal wave of criticism finally prompted a statement.
But anyone waiting for the IOC to do the right thing needs to understand that the committee still lives in a Lausanne fantasy land. The IOC’s assessment asserted:
On the one hand, there are significant improvements in Japan where the people are warmly welcoming the Olympic flame. This could strengthen the IOC’s confidence in the Japanese hosts that the IOC could, with certain safety restrictions, organise Olympic Games in the country whilst respecting its principle of safeguarding the health of everyone involved.
Meanwhile, back in reality, epidemiologists—and anyone who cares about the transmission of coronavirus—looked on in horror at the Olympic flame’s warm welcome in Japan this weekend. In a ceremony staged in Ishinomaki, around 200 miles north of Tokyo, hundreds of spectators bumped and jostled to get a glimpse at the flame, ignoring the social distancing measures that health officials are urging across the world. Moreover, NHK in Japan reports that coronavirus infections in Japan continue to escalate.
Under such conditions, even the pretension of pushing ahead with the Olympic Games is willfully reprehensible and dangerous. And yet, in an interview last week with The New York Times, IOC President Thomas Bach wouldn’t budge, stating time and again that the IOC would not engage in “speculation” about the future of the Tokyo Games. Bach’s talking-point tactics were reminiscent of the way climate change deniers have long framed their status quo stance, using the uncertainty inherent to science as political shield for inaction. “What makes this crisis so unique and so difficult to overcome is the uncertainty,” Bach stated. He continued:
Nobody today can tell you what the developments are tomorrow, what they are in one month, not to mention in more than four months. Therefore it would not be responsible in any way to set a date or take a decision right now, which would be based on the speculation about the future developments.
Of course, this is pure balderdash. Epidemiologists have been clear that when it comes to the coronavirus, we’re in the fight for the long haul. The US Department of Health and Human Services has indicated that the outbreak could go on for 18 months. Another peer-review scientific study found that the coronavirus’s peak in parts of the Northern Hemisphere may not arrive until winter 2020–21. The IOC often trumpets its relationship with the United Nations. It should consider the “precautionary principle” advocated by the UN, which dictates that
where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.
With the coronavirus pandemic, the precautionary principle is apt, and should point the IOC toward canceling, or at the very least postponing, the Tokyo Olympics.
Han Xiao, United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee Athletes’ Advisory Council chair and former member of the US National Table Tennis Team, told us, “Having a date to look to for more information and a decision is a step in the right direction. Previously, the IOC would not commit to any date for making a decision, so we are certainly in a better position today than we were yesterday. Many of our athletes are still facing tremendous anxiety and uncertainty and would like an earlier decision, but we also have some athletes who would like the IOC only to make their decision when they are ready. Ultimately, we are looking for more information and more transparency in the next four weeks as the IOC evaluates all possible alternatives.”
Xiao’s attention to the “tremendous anxiety” faced by aspiring Olympians is vital. The IOC, through its tone-deaf, glacial response to the coronavirus pandemic, has only increased the mental stress and strain on athletes. By telling athletes to continue training and to stay ready in the face of Covid-19, the IOC is making life harder. After all, many training facilities are closed down, including the US Olympic and Paralympic Training Centers in Colorado Springs and Lake Placid and numerous US universities where aspiring Olympians train. For all the IOC’s claims of putting athletes first, too often it seems that athletes are told to go to the back of the Olympic bus.
The IOC had better evaluate “all possible alternatives.” If they don’t, you can guarantee that the athletes will “evaluate” it for them. It will be either “reevaluated” from above or from below. That’s up to Thomas Bach. Either way, these Olympics should not and cannot take place this July.