Pick of the Day: Olympics & The Pandemic

D's Art Takes_Art Blog_Pick of the Day_by Divvya Nirula

In today’s Pick of the Day, for D’s Art Takes, I Divvya Nirula present my take on – “Olympics & The Pandemic”.

Games People Play

There is something about the Olympics. The Greeks knew that men loved sports and always would, competition was motivation.

(Of course, we are using the term ‘men’ to connote the larger humankind.) 

Its tradition, and thousands of years of it that somehow binds and bonds the world through sport. Before the online world and the of social media burst on the horizon – there was another kind of obsession. Before Fortnight, Far Cry and Clash Royale, there were the Olympics. The fact that they were held at the interval of four years seem to add to the anticipation. And the worldwide participation – to watch athletes from the world over compete was exciting.

So, every four years there is an eagerness to watch the sports, cheer different athletes, to watch out for emerging talent. Sometimes it’s fun to root for the sport and forget the country – that is what the games did to the world. United it – and to be honest when there are enough wars to tear the world apart, it is a blessing to find unity in something.

This was when it was idyllic and all was well.

The Pandemic however has done a number on the whole world. Tokyo, who was supposed to host the games – last year was postponed the event in the face of the global pandemic. Nobody was prepared for the reach of the deadly virus. Thus, when the pandemic yawned and stretched into 2021, the Olympics games were under threat once again.

So, in the face of great opposition from the host country, and others – The International Olympic Company (IOC) decided to go ahead and hold the games. 

Host in Hot Water

It’s not just that the world is still in the grip of the coronavirus pandemic, the host city is still in its fourth virus-related state of emergency. Owing to a slow vaccine rollout program in Japan, a large part of the Japanese public is unvaccinated. The threat of a full-fledged flare-up brought on by the Summer Games looms large. It could overwhelm the country’s already strained healthcare system and resources. Japan has bravely risen to post the destruction of tsunamis, earthquakes, and even war – but this is a threat that the people of Japan don’t want to encounter.

Already, 100 people associated with the Olympics have tested positive for COVID-19. Daily cases in Tokyo are currently at their highest in six months. The Japanese capital logged 1,979 new infections on Thursday, 15 July 2021. This is a cause for immense concern for Japan.

The top corporate sponsor – Toyota, has pulled Olympic-themed advertisements from Japanese television. A growing number of politicians and business leaders are shunning the Summer Games opening ceremony. Emperor Naruhito considered omitting the word “celebrating” when he formally declares the sports tournament open on Friday.

The (IOC), has been insisting that they are following strict hygiene protocol. They seem to be marching on ahead with plans. Additionally, spectators, local and foreign, are barred for safety. Many who had bought tickets in advance knew that they would have to wait four years if at all to attend the events.

So it really comes down to money, clearly and in the most glaring way. The for-profit sporting body stood to lose $3bn in broadcast rights if the Games were canceled completely.  

Should the Games be Cancelled?

According to the contract between the IOC and the host city, Tokyo, only the IOC can cancel the event. Moreover, the IOC is estimated to make around 70% of its money from broadcast rights, and 18% from sponsorship. Thomas Bach, President of the IOC insisted the Games must go ahead “to give hope” for the future.

Clearly, it isn’t about solidarity with the sport or human interest, there is a tremendous amount of money at stake. If Tokyo was to cancel the contract, the risks and losses would probably fall on the Japanese side. The budget for Tokyo 2020 was at $12.6bn (£8.9bn), the actual cost might be double.

An angry public could do nothing. The contract between the government and the IOC didn’t allow Tokyo to cancel. They would be risking immense future lawsuits. The apathy for the concern of health tremendous life risk and loss of life is shocking. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, of Japan, has been under enormous pressure with his approval rating having halved since he took office.

In a strange twist, the head of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, backed the competition. He argues that it could show what can be done with the correct Covid safeguards. One really wonders at the angle that the WHO takes.

The Insurance Angle

One does understand that the Olympics aren’t just any event. It is the biggest and most prestigious sporting event on the calendar. And there are billions at stake for Japan and the IOC in terms of broadcasting sponsorship etc. To match the huge event, there are huge contractual obligations.

The only realistic scenario would’ve been if Japan pulled the plug jointly with the IOC, staying within the framework of their contract. If that happens, that’s where insurance would come in. The IOC has insurance, the local organising committee has insurance and the various broadcasters and sponsors will also have insurance.

If the Tokyo Olympics would be canceled, it would probably be the biggest insurance pay-out event of its kind. While insurance would cover the concrete expenses by the organisers, it would hardly cover all of the indirect cost raked up by investments across the country in anticipation of the spectacle. The hosting venues might have undergone preparations for tourists they thought they would receive.

Olympic Bubble Trouble

The IOC has installed checks – apart from rigorous testing pre and post-arrival. Those attending as associates must also download location-enabled contact tracing apps on their phones and limit their movements in their country-specific “bubbles”. They are under pressure to be clean and need to test frequently. When Japan decides to systemise, they would leave no corner unturned. But it has left a terrible taste in the mouth.

Tokyo’s Olympic Village is hosting about 11,000 people. The participants share rooms but undergo daily coronavirus tests. Masks are imperative – except while sleeping, eating, or competing. Athletes who win gold, silver, or bronze place their medals around their own necks. Those who complete their events to leave the country within two days of their last event. Those who are covering the event have it worse – they must be present and yet, somehow – not be.

Christophe Dubi, the executive director at the IOC, assured the participating countries, agents, and the world that they are being super strict. But there is no such thing as ‘zero–risk’. Especially with the Delta variant creating havoc. All in all, it has been a tremendously stressful event and far from its original objectives.

The State of Vaccination in Japan

Japan has had relatively low case numbers, but a new wave of infections began in April. This is what has raised concerns in the public. 21 July, saw 848,222 confirmed cases and 15,062 deaths (compared with 5.5 million cases and 128,800 deaths in the UK).

Japan began vaccinating in February. Owing to this, only 22% of its population of about 126 million has their shots. Authorities hope to meet the goals by the end of July. The athletes don’t have to be vaccinated, though International Olympic Committee (IOC) officials expect around 80% will be.

What Do The People In Japan Want?

Several towns set to host athletes had pulled out earlier in the year due to the legitimate fears about Covid. There has been undue pressure on the strained healthcare industry. The Japanese doctors’ union has said it was “impossible” to hold the Games given the pandemic, in May.

And the poll conducted in May in the Asahi Shimbun daily newspaper suggested more than 80% of the population want them canceled or postponed.

Rugby player Chiharu Nakamura, said via Twitter: “I cannot publicly say I want the Games to go ahead because I know it’s athlete’s ego.” These are the noises that the public has been making – but the sound of the cash registers seems to be drowning them out.

The Debate

Overall, it has been confusing on many counts. The urgency of the games to be carried out, facing a tremendous risk that the country took.  The position of the WHO in the entire matter – and the participating nations. It makes one wonder is it that one is tempting the virus and forging ahead with life. Or really the financial implications compel actions to the point of not caring.

Truthfully, if all is well and cases are kept in check, and protocol is followed, things may rollover. But the question will always hang in the air of how did the OIC and the country agree ??

“They’re only thinking about the financial profits and they don’t care if people die. It’s the complete opposite of the Olympic spirit,” says Masakazu Takahashi ruefully.

Another Japanese citizen, Kouji Yoshimura, also said that “the Olympics has become a cult of commercialised sporting event and their arrogance is surprising.”

In the face of the international furor that they faced – coming to the Indian context. Prime Minister Modi joined millions in viewing the games online. Anurag Thakur, the newly appointed Sports minister too has been cheering the country via Twitter. Would India have taken such a risk? Admittedly, there have been large gaps in protocol and security but in terms of putting a nation at risk? That is highly doubtful. In all it is worthwhile to revisit the original values of why the games are held and what spirit are they conducted in.

Sportsmen uphold the honour of the country and work hard for years for their time in the sun. And it is great to honour them as they should be. As long as that is the direction that one is looking at…

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