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Olympic Organizers Say They're Ready For COVID-19 Risks, But Japan's Doctors Are Wary

A bicyclist rides past the Olympic rings on Wednesday in Tokyo, where the Olympics are scheduled to kick off on July 23.
A bicyclist rides past the Olympic rings on Wednesday in Tokyo, where the Olympics are scheduled to kick off on July 23.

Updated June 2, 2021 at 12:29 PM ET

Athletes have begun to arrive in Tokyo in preparation for the Summer Olympics, set to begin on July 23, despite warnings from many Japanese doctors that the games should be canceled.

Japanese officials and members of the International Olympic Committee continue to insist the games will go on safely.

The Olympic Games were postponed last year because of the pandemic. This year, thousands of physicians cite a surge in infections in Japan in warning that there is no capacity to handle possible outbreaks. Last week, Japan's government extended a state of emergency covering major cities through at least June 20.

The IOC says 80% of athletes in the Olympic Village will be vaccinated — though vaccinations will not be required — and outside the village, less than 3% of the population will be. A recent poll by a Japanese newspaper found that 83% of respondents favor canceling or postponing the games.

Dick Pound — a former Olympic swimmer from Canada and now a member of the IOC — tells NPR's Morning Edition that those involved with putting on the games are taking risks into account and seeking out the "best possible medical advice from public authorities."

"Nobody wants to put on games where you have an increased risk of transmission" from COVID-19, he says.

Below are highlights of the interview, edited for length and clarity.

Why not move the Summer Games to 2022?

When the Japanese and the IOC came to a joint conclusion last year that it was not going to be feasible to put the games on during 2020, the Japanese authorities said look, we can we can hold this together for a year but no longer.

The organizers have announced that the games will take place without any international spectators, and they're considering banning all spectators. A big part of the Olympics is people from around the world coming together to watch them in person. Tell me about why you think it's still worth hosting the games.

Members of Australia's Olympic softball squad, the first national team to come to Japan for pre-Olympic training camp since the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games were postponed to 2021, arrive at Narita International Airport on Tuesday.
Issei Kato / AP
Members of Australia's Olympic softball squad, the first national team to come to Japan for pre-Olympic training camp since the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games were postponed to 2021, arrive at Narita International Airport on Tuesday.

Well, I think fans are nice to have. They're not must haves. And if you think about it, 99.5% or more of the people around the world who will experience the Tokyo Games will do so via television or some other electronic platform where they don't care whether there are spectators or not. The cameras and the attention will be focused on the athletes and the sport, not people in the crowd.

So if you ask most athletes, would you rather have live spectators when you're competing or not? Most would say yes. [If asked] well, if we can't have any spectators, should we cancel the games? They'd say, oh, my God, no, no, no. Heavens, don't even think about that. What's really important is the competition. And we can certainly live without spectators if that's the price of doing it in a pandemic context.

It's important to athletes. I understand that. It also is about, I would imagine, keeping sponsors and TV networks happy. There's a lot of money in the Olympics, and that's going to lead to some charges that money is at the center of pushing this thing forward as opposed to wisdom about the outbreak of a very dangerous virus. Can I ask you to just contend with that for a second?

It's something that seems to roll off the lips of the fourth estate with charming simplicity, but it's just not true. ... The main consideration here — the go or no-go decision — will be determined by public health concerns.

The money side of it is — first of all, people think it's you know, it's sunk money, it's gone and disappeared — but a high percentage of the Olympic costs and investment will be in infrastructure like the Olympic Village, like the stadium and so on. All of which they've already made arrangements to have as part of an ongoing part of the country and its infrastructure.

In the sense of television, it's a deferral. It's not an outright loss. In the case of sponsorships, I think all of the sponsors have accepted the fact that there is a delay and, you know, they've made their adjustments accordingly. In a project as complex as the Olympic Games that all of the stakeholders from the very beginning — pre-COVID and so on — will have their own risk mitigation strategies. I think it's too glib and too easy to say that this is all about money because it's really not.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.


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