Home Opinion and Features The Olympics: A celebration or a disaster waiting to happen?

The Olympics: A celebration or a disaster waiting to happen?


If the Games do go ahead as the IOC and Japanese government – which has already spent millions of dollars preparing for it – believe, will it really feel like an Olympic Games? asks Stuart Hess

A message regarding safe distancing measures amid the coronavirus pandemic is shown on a screen at a stadium before the start of the morning session of an athletics test event. Picture: Issei Kato/Reuters

Opinion: Stauart Hess

AN OLYMPIC Games is very different from any other major sporting event. The scale is truly immense, and there needs to be genuine support for it from the citizens of the host city.

Japan’s citizens, if reports are to be believed, don’t want the Games of the 32nd Olympiad to take place in Tokyo this year. Already postponed by a year, the Summer Olympics are due to start on July 23. But Japan is battling through a third wave of the coronavirus pandemic.

The country’s vaccine roll-out has been slow, it hasn’t finished providing all its medical workers with a jab, while elderly citizens have barely had access to inoculation.

When Games organisers requested 500 nurses to ‘volunteer’ to work during the Olympics, it was met with more fury, that was made worse when the prime minister, Yoshihide Suga, suggested those who’d retired – many because of the stress of dealing with Covid – or others who were taking leave, could fill those volunteer spots.

Eight people involved in the torch relay – the major marketing exercise for Games in the host country – have tested positive for Covid-19.

During the Rugby World Cup hosted in Japan two years ago, Typhoon Hagibis, the worst storm to hit that country in 60 years, caused mass devastation and death. Yet the country’s citizens showed remarkable resilience, and helped make that tournament one of the most successful in its history.

At that stage, Japan’s citizens were highly motivated and excited to host a successful Olympics. That enthusiasm doesn’t seem to be there now – understandably so. Nearly 11,000 people have died during the pandemic.

Is it really worth having the Games take place this year?

The Olympics, as great as they are for those of us watching, and as prestigious as they are for the athletes participating, puts a tremendous amount of stress on a host city. In recent years, as citizens have become more aware of the massive financial outlay demanded to host the Games, scepticism has grown.

Except for totalitarian regimes – which Japan isn’t – wanting to show themselves off, hosting the Olympics is no longer so grandly prestigious as the International Olympic Committee likes to pretend.

The financial demands are enormous and in a world squeezed economically by the devastation wrought by Covid-19, reasons for putting on a show like the Olympics grow thinner. Pictures of venues that once hosted Olympic competition, now overgrown with weeds, or left dilapidated, don’t help those who make the argument about the event’s ‘legacy’.

On the one hand there’s the ‘distraction argument’ – the Games will help focus people’s attention on something besides the depression inducing numbness of the pandemic.

It’s what the IPL tried to use as India crumbled under the weight of horrific increases in Covid cases, while that country’s medical infrastructure was being ripped apart. Eventually, the IPL had to be halted as it could no longer maintain the integrity of the ‘bio bubble’ in which it was being played.

Given that other sports have continued through the pandemic, in bio-secure environments, the argument goes that so should the Olympics. It is unfair, that Lebron James, Leo Messi, Virat Kohli, Naomi Osaka and Jordan Spieth can continue to make a living, but for the likes of Katie Ledecky, Simone Biles and Wayde van Niekerk, for whom the Olympics is an enormous pay day, they have to be sidelined.

Pharmaceutical company Pfizer Inc and its German partner BioNTech SE said last Thursday they had agreed to donate their vaccine to help inoculate those participating in the Games. That is hardly going to improve excitement in Japan, given all the problems it is having with the pandemic.

If the Games do go ahead as the IOC and the Japanese government – which has already spent millions of dollars preparing for it – believe, will it really feel like an Olympic Games?

Already a ban has been placed on overseas spectators. There is very serious talk about limited spectator presence. Also athletes’ preparations have been severely compromised, not just by being forced to train differently because of Covid-19 restrictions, but also that the gap between the haves and have-nots would have widened even more because of the pandemic.

That robs the Games of its very essence – which is to celebrate the best of humanity. Imagine the 100m final in that 80,000-seater Japan National Stadium, which will only have a third of its capacity allowed inside? It will feel hollow.

Is there scope to host the Games in 2023? It will push it right on top of the Paris Games to be held the next year, but given that vaccines will hopefully be rolling out more efficiently – if patents are waived – would that be such a bad thing?

The Olympic Games should be a celebration – hosting them in the manner organisers want to do this year, would only serve as a reminder of these grim times we’re in. That really isn’t what they should be about.