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19 July 2021

Tokyo 2020: How Covid-19 could still disrupt the Olympic Games

The Olympics were supposed to symbolise Japan’s recovery from crisis but they now represent the pandemic’s continuing grip.

By Ido Vock

The 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games will open on Friday 23 July in Tokyo, in what is certain to be the strangest staging of the games for some time. Already delayed for a year by the pandemic, the event is going ahead, but with many disruptions: athletes and staff have already begun testing positive in the Olympic Village and at least one team is isolating. While the International Olympic Committee initially said Japanese fans would be able to attend as spectators, even that provision has been dropped amid a spike in Covid-19 cases in Tokyo, currently over 1,000 a day. Instead, the world’s best athletes will mostly compete in empty stadiums. 

Athletes are required to take two tests before leaving their home countries, and another on arrival in Japan and then daily until they leave. A positive result could mean disqualification from the competition. Tens of thousands of condoms will be distributed to athletes, an Olympic tradition to raise awareness of HIV and Aids – but athletes have been warned not use them and to avoid any frolicking after hours in the Olympic Village. Masks will be mandatory at almost all times, including on the podium. Tokyo itself is under a state of emergency until at least 22 August. 
Despite the precautions, and the fact that around 80 per cent of athletes are expected to be vaccinated, outbreaks among staff and athletes are already occurring, with at least two competitors having tested positive last week. Organisers are hoping that any clusters can be contained to permit the sport to go ahead. Potential outbreaks – and subsequent isolation – could potentially result in high-profile athletes being unable to compete for medals they might have been expected to take home, perhaps leading to some unexpected winners. 

That the games are going ahead at all is controversial, as Tom Feiling wrote for the New Statesman this month. Anti-Olympics protestors have rallied in Tokyo, warning that the competition could be a “super-spreader” event. In May, 83 per cent of respondents to one poll in Japan said that the Olympics should be cancelled. Complaints primarily concern the possibility that participants could spread the virus, but there is also anger about the cost of the event and allegations of corruption among the Tokyo bid committee. 
Japan, an East Asian democracy praised for its initial pandemic response (there have been just 14,900 Covid deaths in Japan since the start of coronavirus crisis), has faltered on its vaccination roll-out, with just a third of the population inoculated. 
As Jeremy Cliffe wrote a few weeks ago, the 2020 Olympics were supposed to symbolise Japan’s recovery from crisis: first the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster and then the pandemic. Instead, the event has become the latest vivid illustration of how far off any return to pre-pandemic normal still is. 

[Listen to: What the Tokyo Olympics mean to Japan]

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