Simon Denyer

Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author. Former bureau chief with The Washington Post and Reuters.

Jul 20, 2021
Published on: Washington Post
2 min read

“We had doubts every day,” Bach said Tuesday. “We deliberated and discussed. There were sleepless nights. Like everyone else in the world, we did not know — I did not know — what the future would hold.”

If Bach indeed had sleepless nights in the months leading up to the Olympics, he must have been awake much of the past few days.

On Monday, the first cases of the coronavirus were detected among athletes in the Olympic Village when three members of the South Africa men’s soccer team, including two players, tested positive, throwing Thursday’s opening game with Japan into serious doubt. So far, at least 67 athletes, officials and other workers involved in the Olympics have tested positive this month.

The news of the rise in infections left one Japanese tabloid wondering this week whether the entire Games might yet be canceled.

While critics have grown louder just days before the Opening Ceremonies, forces more powerful than skepticism — ranging from the financial to the legal to the political — continue to propel the Games inexorably forward.

And independent of those motivations, organizers say the concerns have been overblown. On Monday, organizing committee spokesman Masa Takaya said some positive cases were always to be expected in the run-up to the Games, but he stressed that they made up roughly one-tenth of 1 percent of the 22,000 foreign visitors who had arrived to that point in July.

With more than 80,000 coronavirus tests having been taken by athletes and other personnel, the positivity rate stood at 0.1 percent, Tokyo 2020 organizing committee president Seiko Hashimoto said, a number that prompted more relief than alarm. Tokyo 2020 executives provided no specifics on a rate of spread requiring action, saying only that they would convene a meeting with Olympic power brokers if necessary.

They nevertheless represent the first real trial of a system of extensive testing that organizers have put in place. Athletes are tested every day, but infections don’t always show up immediately. The three South Africans in the soccer delegation had spent two to three days in the Olympic Village before they tested positive. Presumably, they brought the virus with them, incubated in their bodies, but it remains to be seen whether they infected other people.

The positive tests occurred amid a local population in which the virus is surging. Tokyo had 1,387 new cases Tuesday, according to Japanese news service NHK, which is 557 more than a week prior. It was the first time there were more than 1,000 new cases on a Tuesday since January. As if to underscore the stakes, World Health Organization Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus traveled to Japan and addressed the IOC session.

Asked at a news conference whether the global sporting showpiece might still be canceled, Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto said he would keep an eye on infection numbers and meet with other organizers if necessary.

“We can’t predict what will happen with the number of coronavirus cases,” Muto said. “So we will continue discussions if there is a spike in cases.”

The IOC has said more than 85 percent of people living in the Olympic Village are vaccinated, but some coronavirus variants have shown an ability to infect inoculated people.

Still, for the past year, sports around the globe have navigated positive tests among athletes and plowed forward. In the NFL last season, 222 players and 396 other team personnel tested positive between training camp and the end of the regular season. The cases caused multiple games to be rescheduled, but the league completed its season.

This month, England’s entire cricket team went into isolation or quarantine after seven players tested positive days before a series of matches against Pakistan. England fielded a replacement squad and won all three matches.

“Sports around the world have been doing this,” said Yvonne Maldonado, a Stanford professor of global health and infectious diseases. “It’s not rocket science, but you need to be very careful and consistent with what you do with every single person, because one infected person can get out there and ruin it for a bunch of others. You have to make sure everybody is on their best behavior in terms of adhering to the protocols.”

The Tokyo Olympics present an additional layer of complexities. Athletes and staffers came from every corner of the globe to mingle in a country with a mostly unvaccinated population. Major League Baseball teams and European soccer clubs can summon replacements or reschedule games for weeks later, but Olympic teams and individual athletes have no such option.

Maldonado sees the prospect of outright cancellation as remote and essentially unnecessary to consider. Still, the possibility of some events being canceled — and some medals not being awarded — cannot be ruled out.

“If you’ve got one sport where many people on several teams are down, you may have to cancel,” Maldonado said. “I don’t think you can postpone anything. … There’s a lot of different pieces to this. There’s a lot of moving parts. I just think it would have to be pretty catastrophic to shut the whole thing down at this point.”

In an April 28 closed-door meeting, organizers warned Japanese sponsors that a cancellation even in the middle of the Games was “not impossible,” according to minutes leaked to Tokyo Investigative Newsroom Tansa, a private news website.

But from a legal point of view, canceling the Games at this stage is simply “unthinkable,” said Irwin Kishner, executive chairman and co-chair of the sports law group at New York law firm Herrick Feinstein LLP.

“It’s the Titanic going down or the unsinkable battleship,” Kishner said. “There would be billions of dollars of consequences and years’ worth of trying to untangle the mess — and that’s why I would find it highly, highly unlikely it would happen.”

Cancellation could leave athletes and officials stranded in the Olympic Village and elsewhere in Japan without immediate flights home and would unleash a morass of complicated issues, without any clear set of legal documents to govern what happens next, he said.

“You could guarantee that there would be ensuing litigation out of that type of a doomsday scenario,” Kishner said. “One possibility: The government of Japan obviously controls its jurisdiction, territorial and so forth. They say, ‘Let’s close it down.’ The IOC says no. What does that mean? In a legal sense, how does that translate through to the various agreements where all these dollars have been contracted to go all different ways?”

Politically, it is not any more imaginable. After relentlessly insisting all year that the Games should go ahead, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga and Bach would suffer a massive loss of face from any cancellation.

“Politically it would be a catastrophe for Suga,” said Tobias Harris, senior fellow for Asia at the Center for American Progress.

With a leadership election for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party due in September, Japan’s prime minister would be “shown the exit” in such a scenario, Harris said.

It would also be a massive blow to the corporate chieftains who have poured their investors’ money into the Games, and it could lead them to get revenge by withdrawing support for the LDP at general elections later this year, said Michael Cucek, an expert on Japanese politics at Temple University Japan. Worse still, it could be seen as a humiliation after so much national pride was invested in hosting the Games safely.

“Beijing is hosting the Winter Olympics in half a year’s time. For Japan to fail to host an Olympics and [China] to succeed only a few months later would be perceived as Japan’s ultimate humiliation,” Cucek wrote in an email. “There is not a bureaucrat in Kasumigaseki [the Tokyo neighborhood where most cabinet ministry offices are located] or fanatic in right-wing circles who is ready to accept such a humiliation.”

With daily new coronavirus infections in Japan still a fraction of those in the United States or Europe, canceling the Games would leave the country facing ridicule, he said.

“An Olympics cancellation would have to be justified on the world stage,” he said. “The infection and death rates in Japan do not meet international definitions of a crisis. [The government of Japan] and the elites are terrified of Japan becoming an international laughingstock.”