Today’s guest columnist is Rick Burton of Syracuse University.
As COVID-19 deaths in India approach 400,000 (at least those officially recognized), I have been wondering how many more subcontinental fatalities it might have taken for the International Olympic Committee (IOC) to have determined staging the once-delayed 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympics and Paralympics (scheduled for July 23-Sept. 5) was misguided?
As the former chief marketing officer for the U.S. Olympic Committee in 2008, I know it’s a confounding social contract question, and one that is patently unfair to ask of the IOC.
On the one hand, the spirit of the Olympic Games provides hope. As a global community, we witness great athletes from more than 200 countries competing in 30-plus unique disciplines. It is sports entertainment as a salve for humanity’s daily ailments.
On the other, history reveals countless occasions when global leaders closed stadiums because the business of sport was secondary to human survival. Wars, terrorism and natural disasters have a striking capacity to reveal the superficiality of athletic competitions.
And yet, now faced with a continuing pandemic that has killed millions and takes thousands more every day, it appears a fait accompli that these Olympics will go on. NBCUniversal announced its broadcast schedule this week, knowing they have stakeholders to serve. The fiscal calculations involved massive numbers and counted on millions of American viewers. None of those constituents likely live in India or Japan.
What’s wild is that barely a month out from Tokyo’s July 23 Opening Ceremony, we know India, the world’s second most populous country, is fighting a massive battle. In fact, on May 25, The New York Times conservatively suggested India’s crisis could reach 539 million positive COVID-19 cases and 1.6 million deaths. The worst case was estimated at 700 million infections and 4.2 million deaths.
Should the Games, with all of their legendary sunk costs, still proceed and provide the world with much-needed distraction? Or, in attempting to “salvage” these Olympics, do we reveal ourselves as selfish and overtly callous?
From a business perspective, we know the world’s broadcasters need this dramatic content. But how do their balance sheets add up when lives are potentially on the line?
As recently as mid-May, the IOC’s leadership made clear every measure would be taken to stage the Summer Olympics safely. IOC President Thomas Bach even offered to provide additional medical personnel (from National Olympic Committees like the USOPC) to make the Games “safe and secure.”
Bach, a good man, is under enormous pressure. He knows massive costs have been incurred. High-tech arenas have been purposefully built. To the nearest million, he knows how much money is on the line.
Yet, in the face of those same business metrics and the ambitions of elite athletes, he must acknowledge nearly 3.7 million global citizens have already died from this virus. He must concede that while the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced vaccinated Americans no longer needed to wear masks, India’s mortality rates have generated nightmarish impressions of the Black Plague’s earliest days, circa 1346.
Is India’s horror the IOC’s problem? Should the Olympics show compassion for one country’s public health? Many would argue they must.
In Japan, research has suggested nearly 60% of the population believes the Tokyo Games should be canceled. On top of that, less than 5% of the country’s citizens have been vaccinated. That means Tokyo’s Organizing Committee (TOCOG) must ask thousands of volunteers, sanitation/maintenance workers and hourly workers to take notable risks. This is tricky given that a “state of emergency” currently exists in nine Japanese prefectures, including Tokyo. That SOE may last through the end of June.
For their part, the IOC, Olympians, broadcast networks, sponsors and possibly most of the world’s passive spectators will be inclined, if not incentivized, to ignore the Japanese people’s plea to call the whole thing off.
A loud chorus is already suggesting TOCOG simply emulate the NBA or NHL’s recent success in creating “bubbles.” Bring the athletes, coaches and administrators into town. Sequester them. Have them compete. To paraphrase the Roman poet Juvenal (circa 100 CE), to hold onto power, darling, you must give the sweltering masses some bread. A few circuses.
That sentiment works to a certain point. But if the Indian contagion spreads, the IOC’s Executive Board will find itself debating this simple question: Can we wear this? Said another way, If it all goes wrong, do we know who to blame?
Almost certainly, despite best efforts, India may find itself unable to contain stricken individuals fleeing big cities. And, while India is currently reporting a decline in daily deaths (as it approaches 30 million reported cases), there is reason for doubt. The data emerging from Peru (where the government suddenly doubled its COVID-related death toll and made this country the world’s deadliest per capita for COVID-19) might suggest Indian deaths have been grossly under-calculated. Even worse, the spread in rural and under-vaccinated provinces could create a toxic spillover throughout Asia.
The calculus for pandemic death remains vague, but my central question remains: How many deaths per day would it have taken for Olympic leaders and global governments to suggest the Olympic Games had a problem, and perhaps, like in 1940 and 1944, cancel?
Would the IOC have retreated from Tokyo if the daily deaths in India had reached 10,000 official deaths per day? 25,000? If infections had reached 1 million per day?
Bach, the IOC president, has done all one individual can do to keep the world’s most historic sporting spectacle intact. But the moment must’ve approached when the behavioral economic risk of a “full steam ahead” decision appeared massively insensitive for India, a long-standing IOC member. And notably dangerous for Japan, the under-vaccinated host nation.
Burton is the David B. Falk Distinguished Professor of Sport Management at Syracuse University and former commissioner of Australia’s National Basketball League.