As I’m sure you’ve heard, there’s a whole new spirit of international engagement, countries coming together to work on common projects. Which means if you’re a fan of the United States joining other nations around the world, you’re probably pretty happy right now.
That said, there’s one place where that form of global engagement is getting more, not less difficult. You probably know this if you’re a fan of handball, or synchronized swimming, or perhaps Greco Roman wrestling. I’m talking, of course, of the Summer Olympic Games, the place where over 200 nations come together in the spirit of global competition and peace. Or perhaps converge to play a bunch of sports we’re barely heard of to make corporations tons money on the back of elite athletic nationalism. Whatever your take on the Games, it is one of few places that almost every country comes together and leaves most of the conflict on the field.
Of course, it’s the coming together part that’s causing a lot of trouble right now. Which is why the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games became the 2021 Tokyo Summer Games, which is technically still supposed to start in late July. That now seems increasingly perilous because, well, there’s no easy way to bring some 10,000 athletes plus all the coaches and networks and delegations and sponsors to your island nation without it becoming a really fit super-spreader. That’s before we add the millions of fans, who we assume may not be welcome. Hosting the Olympics is like building an entirely new civilization in the host city for a few weeks, which right now would turn the Olympic Village into the world’s largest Petri dish, something only an epidemiologist could appreciate. Which is why you’re seeing indications that these Games may not go on, which would be the first full cancellation since the World War II. Generally speaking, the Japanese public don’t want it, which to be fair, a lot didn’t want it long before Covid was no more than a spark in some bat’s eye. Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has vowed to continue and said these Games will be proof of victory over the virus. IOC Head Thomas Boch has been more blunt, saying there is no Plan B. Which puts everyone, from the Australian Badminton team to the NBC sports crew, on a collision course with uncertainty.
The stakes here are fairly obvious. On the one hand, if you hold the Games, even with half the participants and no fans in the stadiums, and with all safety protocols in place, you could still spread the disease across all five Olympic rings. At which point, you might not be able to contest any sports anyway, and instead just basically have a giant infirmary of the most athletic Covid patients ever. So that’s one side. On the other hand, if you don’t host, Japan will lose countless billions of dollars on top of the billions they’re already in the hole. Not to be overly dramatic, we’re talking about the kind of loss that tanks your economy in a country that’s been through a generational recession. Just ask Montreal what Olympic debt can do for you. Oh, and cancelling these Games has the outside shot of sinking the entire Olympic movement, if you’re ever interested in watching international white-water rafting competitions again. So there’s that.
There’s a lot of solutions and protocols that people will debate over the next days and months, including countless tests and the feasibility and ethics of required vaccinations, which would be the third rail of this whole operation. Some of them are reasonable, and others somewhere between difficult and fantasy. Regardless of the approach, it’s clear that Covid will still be a problem in July, and there’s no way everyone involved will have immunity – much less the Japanese population at large.
That said, despite all the talk of the contrary, I do believe the Games will go on this summer. They won’t be as big, or particularly open to the public, or as majestic as usual. But they will happen. Just like the NFL played a season, and universities are offering classes, and all the other ways that potential fiscal catastrophe outweighs perceived risk. I’m not saying that as a value judgement, but simply a prediction based on the better part of history. Which is why I imagine the conversation will soon shift from if to how, at least by those with the influence to determine that fate. And why global reengagement is likely to continue this summer.
Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler
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