The 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics were pushed back an entire year due to the ongoing, global COVID-19 pandemic. As the historic games geared up for competition beginning at the end of July 2021, preliminary protocols were put in pace that would have allowed some fans to be in attendance. First of all, only local fans would be allowed as spectators, to greatly reduce the risk of inter-country COVID transmission. Furthermore, all events would be capped at 50% spectator capacity, fans would be required to wear masks both inside and outside, and in a move that may have been fundamentally sound but still felt odd, fans would be barred from cheering in an effort to reduce the spread of COVID-19.
However, with the Opening Ceremony on July 23 rapidly approaching, COVID-19 rates that haven’t gone down as much as desired, the emergence of the Delta variant, and a relatively low vaccination rate in Japan (just 15.2% of the population has been fully vaccinated as of July 6,) the 2020 Olympic Committee was faced with a harsh reality.
Fortunately, the decision-making process on fan protocol was a swift one, as the Olympics have to operate under imposed local laws. With Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga declaring a state of emergency that will be in place from July 12 through August 22. With the Olympics Opening Ceremony on July 23 and conclusion on August 8, the entire competition will take place under Japan’s fourth state of emergency since the start of the pandemic. At this point, there was nothing the Olympic Committee could debate: fans would not be allowed at Olympic events for the 2020 Games in Tokyo.
Athletes were already prepared for a less than full capacity, less than full enthusiasm crowd with the pending COVID protocols that had already been in place. But the complete absence of fans could be jarring for sports that thrive off crowd engagement.
But while having fans for the Olympics as currently scheduled is impossible, there still is another option. Yukio Edano, the head of the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan, offered “It’s not too late. Cancel or postpone it,” per ESPN. If the country is under a state of emergency, are the potential health risks associated with holding the Games (even without fans) worth the benefit of holding them as scheduled?
Pushing back the 2020 Summer Olympics another month or even year would be a logistical nightmare for the world’s most prestigious athletic competition this close to their start date. But what else could be a logistical nightmare? An athlete or team testing positive for COVID-19 in the midst of a multi-day medal pursuit. If an athlete or team needs to be disqualified due to health and safety protocols, will competition still continue? If so, the resulting medal would likely carry a heavy asterisk.
At this point in time, the International Olympic Committee is pushing forward with a July 23 start date. With dozens of factors going in to this decision, it’s probably the best route, as opposed to postponing the Games further or cancelling this iteration of the Summer Olympics entirely.
Above all, this is likely a business decision: with the organizers billing the entire cost of holding these Olympics at roughly $15.4 billion, with an additional $3 billion associated with postponing the Games a year. As long as the host country, Japan, doesn’t impose harsher restrictions that would make holding the Olympics impossible, the IOC has a vested financial interest in proceeding as scheduled.
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