Canceling the Olympics is the only gold-worthy plan

Mia Kessinger

Illustration by Mia Kessinger

With full vaccination rates skyrocketing in the United States, numerous major sports venues have returned to 100 percent capacity in stadiums. While this might be the case in the U.S. — where 40 percent of the population is fully vaccinated — there are still significant disparities in vaccine rollouts worldwide. For the postponed 2020 Olympics being held in Japan this summer, it is crucial that everyone attending is fully vaccinated, considering there are still potentially deadly variants that could spread across borders. The Olympics host over 11,000 athletes in addition to tens of thousands of coaches and fans. Without the utmost caution and proper restrictions, lives will be put at risk. Although Japan is planning to limit the audience members to domestic fans, only 2.4 percent of their population is fully vaccinated — a small number projected to grow only slightly by July, as they do not expect to inoculate all residents aged 16 and older until September. Unless the International Olympic Committee (IOC) requires all attendees to be fully vaccinated, the Olympics need to be further postponed or canceled altogether. Without doing so, a COVID-19 outbreak is likely unavoidable and could have potentially devastating consequences globally.

After a full year of anticipation since its cancelation last summer, the 2021 Summer Olympics are now scheduled to start on July 23. To err on the side of caution, athletes will be submitting two negative COVID-19 tests before boarding the plane and one after they land. The IOC will also be offering vaccine doses to all athletes and visitors before they enter Japan but are not requiring everyone to get one if they don’t have access beforehand. Once they have arrived, all participants  must then quarantine in their room accommodations for three days.

Despite their attempts to ensure safety, the IOC’s system is not a foolproof plan. According to Dr. Nick Karr, an emergency room doctor and founder of Sinai Urgent Care Clinic, COVID-19 tests can provide a false sense of security, as an athlete could test negative one day and be positive the next because it can take anywhere from two to 14 days for symptoms to appear and become infectious. Additionally, a study in Japan published by medRxiv, an online site that publishes eprints about health sciences, found that COVID-19 was 19 times more likely to be spread in a closed environment. Considering many of the Olympic events take place indoors, inadequate protective measures could be catastrophic. Furthermore, it is also likely that many will not follow the required regulations by not wearing a mask or wearing one improperly: a study done by the National Center for Biotechnology Information found that only 23.1 percent  of respondents practiced correct mask-wearing measures — further stressing the obvious threat holding the games poses to public health.

Knowing Japan is already more susceptible to COVID-19 outbreaks due to their low vaccination rates, most of its people do not want the Olympics to occur. A poll conducted by the Japan Broadcasting Corporation showed that about 80 percent of Japanese citizens think the games should be canceled or postponed. This opinion is shared by health experts such as Hiroshi Nishiura, a professor of theoretical epidemiology at Kyoto University, who has been advising the government on the pandemic response. According to an article in Bunshun magazine, Nishiura believes that another one-year postponement must be seriously considered, as the country is currently facing “its greatest crisis” with a turbulent fourth wave of cases; 97.8 percent of hospital beds for severely ill COVID-19 patients are occupied and thousands of cases are being recorded daily. It is true that cases could improve by July, but with the slow vaccine rollout, bringing in thousands of people from across the world makes no sense — for both Japanese residents and the attending athletes and coaches.

That said, as the top contenders in their respective countries, each athlete has been anticipating their opportunity to compete in the Olympics for five years. If the Japanese government decides it is too dangerous, cancelation is more likely over another postponement — costing Japan billions of dollars and causing athletes to wait until 2024 for their next chance at winning an Olympic title. Such a decision would be devastating for many, as it is extremely demanding to keep up with a competition worthy  level of training for an additional three years.

Even so, there are alternative opportunities for athletes to compete internationally, such as the World Championships for each sport that happen every year other than the Olympic year — meaning athletes could compete in an equally competitive setting in 2022 instead of having to wait until the 2024 Olympics. With this in mind, putting thousands of people in danger for an athletic event in 2021 should not even be a consideration.

Unless all attendees — athletes, coaches, staff and audience members — can be fully vaccinated in time for the games, the risk is too great for the Olympics to take place. Although canceling would be devastating for the athletes, the lives lost to the inevitable spread of the virus outweigh the benefits of holding the Olympics this summer.