IOC President Thomas Bach is full of it.
And by “it,” I mean bullshit. Lies. Untruths.
Last week, just seven days out from the Olympic Opening Ceremonies on July 23, Bach told the world there is “zero chance” that COVID could spread from the 15,000 athletes about to descend on Tokyo in the next month to residents of the city and, more widely, the rest of Japan.
A mere 72 hours later, we’ve got our first two positive COVID tests among athletes inside the “bubble” of the Olympic Village, as well as the first IOC member to test positive. Did I mention the Games don’t start for five more days? And plenty of athletes, staff, and media members are just now leaving for Tokyo.
All of this has happened since Bach made his ill-informed comments on Thursday (he also referred to the Japanese people as “Chinese,” which wasn’t a great look, either), but it’s not like no one could see this coming. In fact, if you’ve been paying attention to the rollout of the COVID vaccine in Japan for the last several months, all you could see was this coming. Which is why more than 65 percent of the Japanese people are opposed to these Games. But the money-printing juggernaut that is the Olympics will not be stopped, come hell, high water, or millions of deaths from a global plague.
So far, COVID has killed more than 4 million people around the world, and infected around 190 million. That means the virus is killing around two percent of its victims globally (but those numbers vary wildly by country), and we’re not even getting into those suffering lingering symptoms, permanent organ damage, and COVID long-haulers.
Between the Olympic and Paralympic Games, the city of Tokyo can expect around 15,000 athletes from 200 countries to occupy their city from July 23 to August 8 for the Olympic Games, and from August 24 to September 5, when the Paralympics Games close. I know you’ll be shocked to learn that, among this series of great decisions by the IOC, athletes are not required to be vaccinated to take part in the Games. The USOC required coaches and support staff to be vaccinated to attend the Olympics, but stopped short of requiring the same of athletes.
While a good amount of Olympians have already had both shots, the Games will also include athletes from countries that have very limited access to COVID vaccines. The most recent data shows that only about 22 percent of the world population has received both their shots. In Japan, the number is even lower — only 20 percent of the population is fully vaccinated. In other countries, the vaccination rate is much, much lower. For example, only seven percent of South Africans have received at least one shot. In Kenya, that number is only two percent.
Bach has estimated that upwards of 80 percent of athletes arriving in Tokyo will be vaccinated, but that still leaves a pretty good chunk of unvaccinated Olympians walking around the Village. Not to mention, only about 70-80 percent of the media arriving for the Games will be fully vaccinated. And I guess we know now what the IOC’s assurance that “nearly” all its members will be fully vaccinated is worth. One of them only made it as far as the Tokyo airport.
What’s more, experts have been critical of the mitigation protocols Japan has put in place to stem the spread of the virus. Michael Osterholm, an infectious disease expert at the University of Minnesota who has advised on COVID precautions, told Axios that the Tokyo Games aren’t even using as strict a COVID protocol as the NFL or NBA have, which isn’t all that comforting if you know anything about the Denver Broncos or Chris Paul.
Lost in all the talk about Olympic Village bubbles and isolating positive cases and excluding spectators is the fact that thousands of people who live in and around Tokyo will be working and volunteering during these Games. What prevents them from picking up the virus and bringing it home with them wasn’t something Bach discussed, but it’s understandable that he feels he can’t say, “Yes, we know we’re contributing to the prolonging and spreading of this disease in a country where a substantial portion of the population is opposed to even holding the games, but we’ve got the sweet, sweet, Visa and Coca-Cola money, and it’s just too much to pass up. Sorry if people die.”
Meanwhile, the Delta Variant is surging in Asia.
Even more alarming, any COVID surge resulting from the Olympics will take two to four weeks to show up in the data, just in time for the athletes and support staff for the Paralympics to descend on Tokyo. And long after Olympic athletes, media, and staff have returned to their home countries.
Sure, those who test positive at the Games are going to be immediately whisked away to the Tokyo COVID isolation center, but what about all those who were exposed to COVID carriers before their positive test? No matter how the IOC tries to spin it, these Games feel like too many people, with too few vaccinations, congregating in too small a place for this to go well. I desperately hope I’m wrong.
So the Games will go on, opening under a state of emergency and in the midst of a (current) five-day streak of more than 1,000 new cases in Tokyo each day. We’re going to get the slick NBC video packages and the “the world needs good news!” tropes. Media outlets are going to encourage us to watch the Olympics as a “coming together” of the entire world after we were ravaged by a brutal pandemic and came out the other side.
But we’re still being ravaged. The fight is not over. And it’s the people of Tokyo, who specifically asked not to have this happen in their country, who are going to pay the price.