It is dark in the streets of Ibaraki Prefecture in Japan when the Olympic torch passes. A viral video shows the torch bearer slowly jogging past spectators lining the road. Then, as the flame passes, a woman in the crowd fires a water pistol.
“Put out the Olympic flame! Oppose the Tokyo Olympics! she screams. Security rushes around her.
This is the backdrop for the upcoming Olympic and Paralympic Games, which are due to start on July 23 in Tokyo, where cases of covid-19 are on the rise, prompting the city to announce its fourth state of emergency since the start of the pandemic. The increase in the number of cases is of particular concern as the country’s vaccination rate remains low. Only 18% of the Japanese population is fully vaccinated.
Nevertheless, the International Olympic Committee is pushing. At stake are billions of dollars in sunk costs—Tokyo Olympic Stadium cost $ 1.4 billion alone, as well as billions more potential income for the IOC, Japan, local organizers and broadcasters.
A global health crisis far from over, huge sums of money and a government determined to pay off: the forces clashing in Tokyo are unprecedented. And even with tough new rules at games, experts fear covid-19 is getting worse in Japan.
Ensuring the safety of athletes
Nearly 100,000 athletes, staff, their families and others are expected to enter Japan for the Olympics and Paralympics, and organizers say they are doing their best to keep them safe.
Brian McCloskey, chairman of an independent panel advising the IOC on Covid-19 mitigation measures for Tokyo, acknowledges the concerns. To reduce the risk of the virus spreading, athletes, staff and others will be closely monitored, he says.
“The goal is not not to have coronavirus in Tokyo,” says McCloskey. “The goal is to prevent these individual cases from becoming clusters and spreading events.”
Athletes, staff and officials will be tested at various intervals during the games. Residents of the Olympic Village will be tested every day, for example, while Japanese workers who come into close contact with athletes will be tested more frequently than people directing traffic. McCloskey says a contact tracing system will be used in the Olympic Village to help contain any cases that emerge. Anyone entering Japan will need to download a contact tracing app, and athletes and members of the media are urged to turn on GPS tracking on their phones. Organizers say location data will only be used if there are cases of covid.
As the games got closer, the metrics became more and more stringent. Audiences from other countries were shut out months ago, and it was announced earlier this month that there will be no audiences in theaters in and around Tokyo.
McCloskey says there is precedent for running the games in the midst of a public health threat, even though the precedents weren’t on the same scale as covid. When he advised the IOC for the London Olympics in 2012, organizers considered the possibility of a SARS pandemic, he says. And before the 2016 games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, there were concerns about Zika (WHO said later no cases have been reported in athletes or spectators).
For Tokyo, the IOC has published several instructional “guides” for athletes, staff, volunteers and the press.
But despite strict rules, games will inevitably mean people mingle and interact in ways that otherwise wouldn’t happen.
“It’s not just the event itself,” says Linsey Marr, professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech, who is a leading expert in aerial transmission of viruses. “It’s everything else associated with the event: hotels, restaurants, means of transport.