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At this Olympics, keep calm, but don’t carry on

Japan tells fans and athletes to curb their celebrations because of COVID-19


Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga at a news conference in front of Olympic mascots in Tokyo Associated Press/Kyodo News

At this Olympics, keep calm, but don’t carry on

Banners throughout Tokyo still sport the message “Tokyo 2020” with the multicolored Olympic rings entwined beneath. On July 23, after a year’s delay because of the coronavirus pandemic, the Summer Olympics—officially the Games of the XXXII Olympiad—will begin in Japan. The International Paralympic Games start Aug. 24.

Japan expects more than 11,500 athletes plus about 79,000 journalists, officials, and staff members to attend the games. Athletes will compete in 33 sports at 339 events across 42 venues. But the largest sporting event in the world will look much different this year because COVID-19 continues to spread globally though transmission rates are slowing.

For starters, the Olympics will allow no foreign spectators at events—not even athletes’ parents or spouses. Media covering the event have had to adjust accordingly.

“In the past (when an athlete wins) we would cut away to a relative in the stands, and instead, we’re cutting away to a living room in Illinois,” Molly Solomon, executive producer and president of NBC Olympics Production, told Reuters. NBC developed a “friends and family” production unit to capture reactions to events by athletes’ loved ones and communities back home.

Instead of supporters from back home, athletes will compete in front of up to 10,000 Japanese fans or 50 percent of a venue’s capacity, whichever is less. On Monday, Japanese media reported the number could go down to 5,000. Fans may not shout or talk loudly, and no alcohol is permitted. No one can predict how the smaller-sized, quieter crowds may affect athlete performance.

A recent poll of Japanese voters found 60 percent of them want the Olympics postponed or canceled altogether to mitigate the influx of the virus and any new variants. Japan has not had large COVID outbreaks, but Tokyo and its surrounding prefectures are still under a quasi-emergency, meaning the government has asked but isn’t mandating bars and restaurants to shorten their hours. The quasi-lockdown is set to expire on July 11. Because of recently rising COVID-19 numbers in Japan, the government may extend the request, or, in light of the Olympics, add regulations to discourage large gatherings. Less than 9 percent of the country’s 126 million people are vaccinated, compared to about 46 percent fully vaccinated in the United States.

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) and organizers believe they can prevent the spread of the virus to Japanese residents and others and keep athletes healthy for competition. Athletes and officials will be required to adhere to instructions in the third iteration of the IOC playbook: They must test negative for COVID-19 before departing their home country and upon arrival in Japan, where they will then quarantine for three days unless performing games-related activities. All will have daily coronavirus tests. If they test positive at any time during their stay, they will quarantine immediately, and officials will begin contact tracing on a smartphone location-monitoring app everyone should have downloaded prior to arrival.

The playbook encourages but does not require COVID-19 vaccinations. IOC officials estimate 80 percent of athletes will have been vaccinated before arrival. Pfizer and BioNTech are donating doses to Olympic and Paralympic delegations before they leave for Japan.

The IOC guidelines also discourage all hugs, high-fives, handshakes, singing, and chanting. They direct athletes to maintain 2 meters (6½ feet) distance from others unless on a playing field. Athletes must always wear a face mask except while eating, drinking, sleeping, training, or competing, and must have their temperatures checked upon entering any venue. Guidelines list strict protocols for dining and transportation and limit movement within Japan. The Olympic Committee may bar athletes from competing if they don’t follow the rules. Similar IOC playbooks lay ground rules for staff and media, and after their final competition, athletes must leave Japan within 48 hours.

The IOC has a vested interest in ensuring the Olympics proceed. Almost 75 percent of its $5.7 billion revenue in the current four-year cycle comes from selling broadcasting rights for the games. NBCUniversal’s executive chief Jeff Shell said these games could be the company’s most profitable ever. Last year, the company said it sold $1.3 billion in US advertising for Tokyo 2020 Olympics. Officials estimate Japan could lose $16 billion—including $9 billion from Japanese taxpayers—if the games were canceled.

But Nomura Research Institute executive economist Takahide Hiuchi, warns of the potential financial cost of proceeding with the games, pointing out that last year’s emergency COVID-19 declaration cost the country almost $60 billion. “If the [Olympics] trigger the spread of infections and necessitate another emergency declaration, then the economic loss would be much greater,” he said. But at this point, barring civil disorder, the games will go on.


Sharon Dierberger

Sharon is a correspondent and reviewer for WORLD. She is a World Journalism Institute and Northwestern University graduate. She has served as a university teacher, clinical exercise physiologist, homeschooling mom, businesswoman, and Division 1 athlete. She resides in Stillwater, Minn., with her husband, Bill.

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