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Keith Strudler: The Games Probably Will Go On

There is perhaps nothing more dramatic in all of sports than the Olympics Games. The thrill, the uncertainty, the anticipation of the unknown. And that’s just figuring out if we’re going hold them in the first place. In perhaps the most awkward scenario imaginable, with only two days until the Tokyo Olympic opening ceremonies, there is still some lingering uncertainty of whether this whole thing gets cancelled, as the head of the Organizing Committee of the Tokyo Games left an opening to pull the plug on the entire operation as we head into the final hours. I remember visiting Athens a month before the 2004 Olympics and wondering how in the world they’d be ready for the Games in just a few weeks, which, for the record, they weren’t. But this takes suspense to a whole new level. Because on Friday night, the whole world will either be watching some 200 nations parade into Japan National Stadium or reruns of Frazier. Either way, it’ll be a surprise.

This comes as some 70 people inside the Olympic Village have already tested positive for the Coronavirus, with a whole lot more people arriving and a whole lot of mingling yet to begin. So much for any Olympic bubble. It’s more like an Olympic experiment. And several high-profile athletes have had to pull out preemptively, including American tennis star Coco Gauff, who tested positive this past week. Add to that a Japanese public that’s only about 22% vaccinated, and you’ve got an uneasy feeling heading into the upcoming fortnight.

None of this is a particular surprise, although some things have gone worse than expected. At the very least, there was hope that most all athletes would be vaccinated before the start, something that clearly hasn’t happened. There was also an assumption that the virus would be on the decline this summer, which is not the case in Tokyo as cases and variants rise – at least by Japanese standards, which to be clear is nothing like the American catastrophe. We also assumed fans in the stands, growing corporate engagement, and local support – and we got none of it. So even if we push ahead through the Five Rings, the thrill is long gone.

This has raised two big questions. First, and most perfunctory, is whether the Games will in fact go on. And to be clear, I’m not asking whether they should, but whether they will. And while it’s impossible to predict the future, I’ll continue to say that barring Japan shutting down and kicking out every athletic foreigner, the Games will happen. This is what I said a month ago, six months ago, and a year ago, and so far, nothing has changed that inevitability. If nothing else, this should remind everyone of the force of nature that is global commerce. Right now, NBC has largely placed the fate of its empire on these Olympics and its ability to grow Peacock, which is a whole other banana. So if these Olympic Games were to be cancelled, it’s taking American TV down with it. This comes with the more obvious reality that when it’s all said and done, Japan will be left with something like a $20 billion dollar loss.

Which leads to the larger, more philosophical question. Namely, is this the death of the Olympic Games altogether? That’s a much tougher one to answer, particularly without a clear definition of death. At the very least, there’s a strong rationale for why we don’t need the Olympics anymore. There’s plenty of international sports championships for pretty much everything, and all of it is available streaming somewhere. Professional sports are also far more global at this point, making the concept of nationalism a bit murkier than before. Companies are less likely to want so sponsor future Olympics, given their clear volatility. And especially after these Games, but really for some time, there is no economic incentive for any reasonable city to want to host an Olympics. It’s far too risky, and it’s a great way to get voted out of office.

So, will the Olympics end? Well, Brisbane, Australia just won the right to host the 2032 Games – unopposed, for the record. So assuming the world is still here, I suppose we’ve got another 11 years of this. After that, it’s anyone’s guess. But I’d simply remind everyone that bold predictions are easy – actual change is hard. Which is why I imagine we’ll still have this in some form in 2036 and beyond. But either way, Games or no Games, it will be a surprise.

Keith Strudler is the director of the School of Communication and Media at Montclair State University. You can follow him on twitter at @KeithStrudler

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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