Sign up for our free daily Olympics newsletter: Very Olympic Today. You’ll catch up on the biggest news, the smallest events, things you might have missed while you slept, and links to the best writing from SI reporters on the ground in Tokyo.
On July 23, the Tokyo Summer Olympics opening ceremony should resemble previous iterations in pomp, if not in circumstances. There will be athletes marching, thousands of dreams come true. And, of course, there will be a choreographed show, put on for a global television audience that might need some comfort in the midst of a relentless pandemic.
The millions who tune in will see more than just a ceremony at that very moment. They will know that the Tokyo Games, already the first to be postponed since the modern Olympic era began 125 years ago, will actually take place, despite protests, petitions and months of handshakes. Spectators will observe an unprecedented backdrop, with masks covering faces and the stands, devoid of spectators.
Olympians probably won’t care at the time that nothing like these Games has ever been organized. They will look to seize the opportunity for glory that faded in 2020. The Tokyo Games will feature Simone Biles writhing into one more gymnastics history, Katie Ledecky swimming to add her medalist, Megan Rapinoe, and the US women’s soccer team. seeking revenge after returning home from Rio empty-handed, Diana Taurasi seeking a fifth basketball gold and Allyson Felix gracing the court in her fifth (and final) Games.
Much of the focus in the run-up was on whether the Games should be held now, especially in a country with a recent spike in COVID-19 rates and a low vaccination rate. But there is no longer any doubt that they are happening. Therefore, the emphasis must shift to how the Pandemic Olympics can be carried out more safely, and whether they can bring much-needed relief to a planet of sports fans who are still tired even when things return. to normal.
Once the events start, it should be easier to identify with the athletes. Between Olympic and Paralympic athletes, more than 15,000 elite competitors had to pause their lives. Again. Many of them are amateurs. The vast majority are poorly compensated, but incurred another 12 months of training expenses, for a year of training they thought they had already completed. They postponed weddings, college enrollments, plans to conceive, and more lucrative burgeoning careers. The best competitors were unable to capitalize on the sponsorship opportunities that always follow golden performances. They were also unable to deposit bonus money for medals that often help fund their future plans.
Of course, these athletes listened to all the complaints directed at the International Olympic Committee: new virus strains that could generate positive cases in the host country, countless polls that showed that the majority of Japanese citizens were in favor of the postponement or cancellation of the Games. and nine prefectural governors who publicly agree with that view. In addition, there were concerns voiced by the medical workers union, whose members were concerned about overcrowded hospitals, which were already running out of beds, and the safety of overworked doctors and nurses.
Of course, many athletes sympathized. They themselves had been affected by COVID-19. Some were trained in underdeveloped countries that had been crushed by the pandemic. But if they chose not to compete, someone else would.
That led experts like Dr. Robby Sikka to consider the best scenarios rather than the worst. The Timberwolves vice president of basketball performance and technology and a member of the NBA’s sports science committee, Sikka joined a group of representatives from all US-based professional sports at the start of the pandemic. They met regularly via videoconference with the CDC and the White House, sharing information and data on what worked and what didn’t.
They are now the COVID-19 Sports and Society Task Force, and when they look at the Olympics, they see the best hope in the Tokyo bubble. It looks more like the model used for the NCAA men’s basketball tournament than the NBA version, which Sikka helped create. The varsity teams stayed in Indianapolis with their movement restricted, underwent regular tests and did not interact with family, friends or spectators. Only one tournament game was canceled.
As for what NBA and NCAA experiences can teach Olympic organizers, Sikka notes that creating a bubble environment is much more difficult than maintaining it. “Get people in, be safe, and get the positive cases out right from the start; if it does, then there is a chance, ”he says. “If it doesn’t, then nothing else matters.”
Sikka points to three significant differences from 2020 compared to now:
• New highly contagious variants that have higher viral loads than what doctors saw last fall or last summer.
• Higher positive rates for younger populations. In Minnesota, where Sikka lives, the median age of COVID-19 hospitalized patients last summer was 72; This spring, it was 57.
• Long-term unknowns, as in the case of Olympians who contracted COVID-19 before and could still be affected by it. “Even a 1% or 2% deficit in an Olympic athlete’s performance can be really significant,” says Sikka. “But it underscores why creating a safe bubble is so important.”
From now on, plans for Tokyo include daily tryouts, eating six feet apart, and wearing masks at all times. Sikka’s bubble would include, in an ideal world, daily PCR testing, having as many athletes and officials vaccinated as possible, and eliminating interactions with anyone outside of whatever isolated environment exists. The degree to which Olympic teams follow those guidelines will likely present a competitive advantage, says Sikka, who has been advising USA Basketball for the Games. “You have to wonder how the disparity in vaccination rates will affect training in the worst-affected countries, or where athletes can’t train for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” he says. “That shapes how I’m going to view the Olympics, and it should shape how we’re going to evaluate what we really get out of those weeks.”
It doesn’t mean that in a negative sense, necessarily, but more in a weird one. It will be impossible to judge the Tokyo Games with normal metrics in such abnormal times. Of course, athletes, their coaches and their countries want, more than anything, to win. The IOC will not have to repay the roughly $ 4 billion that a cancellation would have forced it to repay in television money. NBC will keep the $ 1.25 billion it said it sold for Olympic advertising. A widely circulated quote attributed to NBCUniversal CEO Jeff Shell from an investor conference in June spoke volumes. Tokyo, he said, “could be our most profitable Olympics in company history.”
Sikka reflects on more pertinent, or at least more humane questions: “How can we justify it? How can we use this as a way to unite countries? “
He then posits a 2020-21 twist of the Olympic ideal. The Games can show people from all corners of the world that everyone who wants a vaccine should have access to it. Fans who are not vaccinated could get their first shots when leaving the venues. The protocols established by the IOC can effectively mitigate risk, keeping competitions on schedule and athletes, officials and spectators safe.
As Sikka watched the French Open unfold in June, his thoughts turned to Tokyo. Although there were fans in the stands, they seemed emptier than expected, and at times, it seemed like the players didn’t know what to make of the experience. He read how some elite players had chosen to skip these Olympics, preferring to wait until 2024 so their families could participate in person. Not everyone had that option. But those who decided to go and won were able to highlight why it mattered. They could show that they are more than a gold medalist; they are advocates of public health, of their communities, of a divided world that could use a unifying message.
“I hope that the Olympics will help us overcome the pandemic and take a step forward,” says Sikka. “Because last year we couldn’t have them, and this is something we should be proud of. Now, we have to do it so that the following is possible. “
In April, the Japanese government declared a state of emergency in urban areas, requiring the closure of restaurants serving alcohol or offering karaoke, closing cinemas and banning crowds at sporting events. In June, officials partially lifted the state of emergency in Tokyo and other cities, after a 48% drop in positive cases. Plans were made for a limited number of fans from Japan to attend the Games. But earlier this month, they changed again as cases increased. The government declared a state of emergency in Tokyo, banned spectators and demanded that bars and restaurants close early.
In June, the IOC said that more than 80% of Olympians had been or would be vaccinated before arriving in Tokyo. Organizers also decided to allow local spectators but limit attendance to 10,000 in total or 50% of capacity, whichever is less. Sikka hopes they are far enough away from the athletes.
Patience will be necessary, as complications will surely arise. At least three athletes from the Olympic Village have already tested positive. Athletes at the Games will undergo six times more testing than NFL players. Professional football had positives and false positives, but, Sikka notes, the league “found a way to keep moving forward.”
All of this reminds the doctor of a graduation speech he heard in 2004. Sikka sat with his graduating Penn classmates as the speaker, Bono, called on his generation to advocate for the poor and developing parts of the world. Sikka says it still resonates with him 17 years later.
And so he sees these unprecedented and potentially dangerous Tokyo Olympics presenting an opportunity, an opportunity to leave a collective legacy that is far greater than any individual.
More coverage of the Olympics:
• Caeleb Dressel is a swimming machine
• What are the COVID-19 protocols really like?
• A guide to the five new Olympic sports
Read more of SI’s daily cover stories here
Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.