Sports·Opinion

Risking lives to stage Tokyo Olympics 'at any cost' is a price too high

Japan's Olympic minister Seiko Hashimoto said Tuesday she believes organizers 'have to hold the Games at any cost,' but as CBC Sports Senior Contributor Morgan Campbell writes, the toll in human lives could prove too expensive.

Various organizers have suggested the Games proceed in spite of global pandemic

A man wearing a mask walks by the Olympic rings in front of Tokyo's New National Stadium in July. Japan's Olympic minister Seiko Hashimoto said during a Tuesday news conference, 'I think we have to hold the Games at any cost.' (Eugene Hoshiko/The Associated Press)

This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

Look, I miss the Olympics.

I wanted to see Christian Coleman against Andre De Grasse et al in the men's 100-metre final in front of a capacity crowd. Those would have been the most thrilling 9.7-ish seconds of my Sports Fan Summer. I was ready to wake up at dawn to see if some sub-60-kilo weightlifting phenom could clean-and-jerk three times his bodyweight. And I was willing to welcome the new stars that emerge every Olympic cycle. Before Rio, hardcore gymnastics fans knew Simone Biles was a superstar. Now we all do.

And as an adult with a mortgage, I could have used the money. An on-schedule summer Olympics would have meant more work for me, more invoices sent and, eventually, more cash in the bank.

But if we want festivals and concerts and sold-out sports events next summer, part of the price we pay is inconvenience today. We're still living through a global pandemic, and the novel coronavirus doesn't care about our timetable for returning to normal life.

As a sports fan and journalist, I'll do what I can to help make Tokyo 2021 happen. I'll wash my hands for 20 seconds, limit the time I spend in public, and wear a face covering when I venture into stores or other places crowds might form.

WATCH | Dr. Zain Chagla discusses possibility of 2021 Olympics:

The return of professional sports can be a valuable teaching tool for organizers of the Tokyo Olympics in 2021, says Dr. Zain Chagla, who also offers a lesson in proper mask-wearing.   7:45

So, in a sense I understand the urgency expressed by Japan's Olympic minister, Seiko Hashimoto, who told a news conference Tuesday that delaying the summer Olympics beyond next July isn't an option.

"Everyone involved with the Games is working together to prepare, and the athletes are also making considerable efforts toward next year," she said. "I think we have to hold the Games at any cost."

Wait.

What, exactly, is the cost, and who is paying?

Without solid answers, we should all make peace with another postponement, or even a cancellation.

Dollars and sense

The desire to press ahead makes sense given what organizers, sponsors and broadcasters have already invested in the Tokyo Games. Late last year the local organizing committee said staging the games would cost $12.6 billion US, but Japan's National Audit Board assessed expenses and pegged costs at more than $22 billion.

And those numbers don't even account for the billions it will cost to reschedule events and living arrangements if and when athletes arrive in Tokyo, or the expensive process of COVID-proofing the Olympic village, with daily testing and tight restrictions on who can enter. In May, the International Olympic Committee revealed it expected to make $800 million in payouts to help local organizers and national committees cover the delay's costs.

The figures are staggering, but they're still just money.

By Wednesday afternoon, COVID-19 had infected more than 27.6 million people worldwide, and killed nearly 900,000. With so much still unknown about its long-term effects, and the trajectory of the pandemic, organizers can't stop calculating the cost of the 2021 games in terms of lives affected and lives lost.

WATCH | Canada's chef de mission ponders logistics of 2021 Games:

Canada's chef de mission for Tokyo discusses Rule 50, the importance of a COVID-19 vaccine and the logistics of a 2021 Olympics. 8:28

Does staging the games "at all costs" include an athlete contracting a debilitating or deadly case? Picking up the virus unwittingly, then spreading it to a vulnerable relative, who lands in the hospital or the cemetery? Becoming next summer's version of the Sturgis, South Dakota motorcycle rally researchers think might ultimately be responsible for 266,000 new infections?

Again, an Olympics next July helps me financially, but let's separate what's best for me from what's best, period.

A July poll by Kyodo News suggests residents of Japan have made a similar calculation, weighing the economic benefits of the world's biggest sporting event against the credible risk of spawning new outbreaks. Just 23.9 per cent of respondents supported staging the Games next summer, the remainder preferred either another postponement, or an outright cancellation.

Attitudes may have shifted since then, but too many variables remain for anyone to say definitively that staging an Olympic games next summer justifies the potential public health cost.

On Tuesday, Ontario's provincial government announced it would pause further plans to relax public health measures after a surge of new cases. Ontario's five-day rolling average of new cases hit 177.7 on Tuesday, up from 120.6 the previous week, and 88.4 on August 8.

Meanwhile, drug manufacturer AstraZeneca announced Tuesday it had suspended trials of its COVID-19 vaccine after an "unexplained illness" in one of the study's participants.

Downplaying a pandemic

And then there's U.S. president Donald Trump, up for re-election in November, and head of the country that leads the planet in COVID-19 cases and deaths. He also has a track record of using his platform to push fake cures. He touted the anti-malaria drug hydroxychloroquine, even though it hasn't been shown to help COVID-19 patients, and suggested that ingesting bleach might destroy the virus.

Wednesday we learned Trump had revealed in interviews with veteran journalist Bob Woodward that he understood in mid-winter the damage of COVID-19 could cause, and the ease with which it spreads. But instead of intervening with science-backed mitigation, Trump chose to insist in public statements that COVID-19 wasn't as deadly or communicable as public health officials portrayed.

"I wanted to always play it down," Trump told Woodward March 19. "I still like playing it down, because I don't want to create a panic."

WATCH | Trump discusses virus with journalist Bob Woodward:

Clips seem to show the U.S. president knew more about COVID-19 than he revealed to the public in the early days of the pandemic. 1:50

Trump's two-faced approach to fighting the pandemic has cost lives – nearly 190,000 Americans have died of the COVID-19 through Wednesday. And it affects the cost of Tokyo 2021 insofar as the U.S. is a big country with a big economy and a big Olympic team. Its current president also has a proven willingness to use his political leverage against sports executives who choose not to field teams during the pandemic.

Last month, the Big Ten conference announced it would postpone fall sports to 2021, prompting Trump to call Big Ten president Kevin Warren and urge a reversal of the decision. Warren heard Trump out, then stood by the health experts and university presidents who had opted against playing college sports amid a pandemic.

"[We] are exhausting every resource to help student-athletes get back to playing the sports they love, at the appropriate time, in the safest and healthiest way possible," Warren said in a statement published after Trump's call.

It's been an unpopular position in much of the U.S. midwest, where college football season functions the way hockey season does in Canada. People don't just watch it; they set their calendars and plan their lives around it.

And it's equally unpopular with broadcasters, sponsors, and anyone else poised to make money off unpaid college athletes.

But the Big Ten set an example Olympic organizers might need to follow if this pandemic hasn't subsided by next spring. Proceeding will carry a cost, but if we're counting the toll in human lives, proceeding at all costs is too expensive.

About the Author

Morgan Campbell

Senior Contributor

Morgan Campbell joins CBC Sports as our first Senior Contributor after 18 standout years at the Toronto Star. In 2004 he won the National Newspaper Award for "Long Shots," a serial narrative about a high school basketball team from Scarborough. Later created, hosted and co-produced "Sportonomics," a weekly video series examining the business of Sport. And he spent his last two years at the Star authoring the Sports Prism initiative, a weekly feature covering the intersection of sports, race, business, politics and culture. Morgan is also a TedX lecturer, and a frequent contributor to several CBC platforms, including the extremely popular and sorely-missed Sports Culture Panel on CBC Radio Q. His work has been featured in the New York Times, the Literary Review of Canada, and the Best Canadian Sports Writing anthology.

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