Tokyo Olympics in trouble before they start

International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach said last week that there was “zero” risk of participants at the Tokyo Games passing on COVID-19 to one another or anyone outside of the athletes village. I’m assuming Bach kept a straight face when he said it, but can’t say for sure because he was wearing a mask.

Predictably, Bach’s assurances were undermined. It took only one day.

Officials Saturday revealed the first positive test for a person inside the Olympic Village, where more than 11,000 athletes will be lodged along with coaches and support staff. On Sunday organizers said two South African soccer players at the village tested positive. They said there have been 71 confirmed COVID-19 cases since July 1 among people accredited for the Games, a number that includes foreigners and Japanese.

By Tuesday, three days before the opening ceremony, the CEO of the Tokyo organizing committee left open the possibility that these Olympics, postponed for a year, won’t happen at all.

“We can’t predict what will happen with the number of coronavirus cases,” Toshiro Muto said at a news conference, per Reuters. “So we will continue discussions if there is a spike in cases. ... At this point, the coronavirus cases may rise or fall, so we will think about what we should do when the situation arises.”

It doesn’t require much deep thought to conclude that it’s too risky for public health to hold the world’s largest sporting event in Japan as COVID-19 cases rise there. Infectious disease experts were warning against it in April. They cited Japan’s inability to control the rise in COVID-19 cases, including limited testing capacity and slow vaccine rollout.

The conclusion of an April commentary in the British Medical Journal: “Holding Tokyo 2020 for domestic political and economic purposes -- ignoring scientific and moral imperatives -- is contradictory to Japan’s commitment to global health and human security.”

In the U.S. we’ve come to expect anti-science, immoral behavior from a significant portion of the population. We’ve seen government leaders repeatedly prioritize politics and money over public health. Here, Bach’s preposterous “zero risk” claim would be added to the pile of insincere statements by sports officials as the games go on.

They take these things more seriously in Japan. It is among the many developed countries that have fared much better than the U.S. during the pandemic. Now that cases are rising, its citizens don’t want a super-spreader event to make things worse. Olympic organizers keep repeating their “safe and secure” mantra, but the people aren’t buying it.

The AP reported that Bach was met by dozens of protestors when he visited Hiroshima on Friday. (Among their signs: “Cancel The Olympics” and “No Bach.”) According to Reuters, 68% of respondents to a poll in the Asahi newspaper expressed doubt that organizers can control coronavirus infections, and 55% said they were opposed to the Games going ahead.

According to the World Health Organization, Japan has had about 844,000 coronavirus cases and 15,000 deaths among its population of about 126 million people. Japanese citizens routinely wore masks in public before the pandemic. The government controlled the virus by focusing on contract tracing and encouraging the public to avoid the so-called three c’s — closed spaces, crowded places and close contacts.

Now Japan’s mostly unvaccinated population is welcoming thousands of visitors from around the world as cases rise. For 31 consecutive days, COVID-19 cases reported by government officials exceeded the number from the same day the previous week. Japanese news agency NKH reported 1,387 cases in Tokyo on Tuesday.

Said Seiko Hashimoto, a former Olympic athlete who is president of the Tokyo committee: “I really want to apologize from my heart for the accumulation of frustrations and concerns that the public has been feeling towards the Olympics.”

Some Japanese sponsors have become nervous about being associated with the Games. Reuters reported that Panasonic, top sponsor of the opening ceremony, said it will skip the event along with Fujitsu and other companies. Toyota has stopped running TV ads connected to the Olympics.

Chances are the Games officially will start Friday. They just won’t be as much fun as previous Olympics. That’s not possible without spectators, who are barred from all events in Tokyo and from most in other parts of the country.

Officials ruled out fans from other countries in April. A month ago, organizers said Japanese fans would be allowed at events with 50 percent capacity in venues and a limit of 10,000. Those spectators were to be banned from cheering or even talking loudly.

As much as I’d rather see Olympic venues full of fans when there is not a pandemic, I admittedly was intrigued by the idea of half-empty stadiums of people silently watching events at an international sporting event. That would be a creepy, unsettling sight. It would have highlighted the hubris of the world trying to carry on as normal during a pandemic that isn’t finished with the world.

I’m sure I’ll watch plenty of the Olympics even though no spectators will be at events. The Games might be a cash grab, but I’m always hopeful they’ll live up to their values of excellence, friendship and respect. Hearing those triumphant trumpets from “Olympic Fanfare and Theme” by the legendary composer John Williams always stirs something inside me.

I’d likely feel differently if I lived in Japan, saw the rising COVID-19 cases there and heard the IOC leader tell me there was “no risk” of spread. It’s no wonder that so many Japanese people don’t want these Games to go on.