The summer 2021 Olympic games will kick off in just over two weeks, but as the coronavirus pandemic continues, some are wondering how rising cases in the area will impact the already once-postponed games.
Japan is currently seeing a surge in daily COVID cases, with Tokyo — which is hosting the Olympics — recording 716 new cases over the weekend, up from 534 cases the previous week. Cases are also on the rise across Africa, where the highly transmissible Delta variant and a lack of accessible vaccines has left a dozen countries — including Uganda, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Namibia, Zambia, Rwanda and Tunisia — most affected.
This year, the Olympics hopes to bring together 15,000 athletes, more than 50,000 officials, and 70,000 volunteers to a country that is currently only 13.8% vaccinated. This all begs the question: Will the Olympics go on? And also, should they go on?
Organizers of the games, the International Olympic Committee, and others will come together this week to determine new restrictions due to the current surge and rapidly spreading, highly infectious variants, the Associated Press reports. Some worry the Olympics could become a super-spreader event, in which case Tokyo’s health care systems could end up overloaded.
Over the last weekend, a third visiting Olympian tested positive for coronavirus upon their arrival in Japan, the Washington Post reported. The rower was sent to a medical facility, and the rest of the team was moved to a separate site, so they will likely not be able to train in advance of the games. Olympians visiting Japan to compete are required to be tested for the coronavirus before their departure and upon arrival in the country, but vaccination is not currently a requirement to compete. Still, officials expected more than 80% of athletes will have been vaccinated.
“We must stay on high alert,” Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga said on July 1, while officials are determining what kind of restrictions to put in place ahead of time, including limiting the number of spectators. “Having no spectators is a possibility.” Seiko Hashimoto, president of the Tokyo organizing committee added, “It’s not that we are determined to have spectators regardless of the situation.”
Despite these new measures, some health experts believe cancelling or postponing the games a second time would be the best and safest decision. “Scientifically, I still believe that cancelling the Games would be optimal to save lives and for the health of the nation. But, the decision is the government's and organizers,” Hiroshi Nishiura, a professor at Kyoto University said last month, according to Reuters.
Paul Griffin, a professor at the University of Queensland in Australia added: “Even if the optimum mitigation strategy is employed, including, for example, vaccination of every attendee, I think there is still a very significant risk of transmission at the event. And I think that's concerning, because this is perhaps the first event that I'm aware of where people will be attending in such large numbers from all corners of the world."
Griffin also noted that plans to keep all the teams separate during the games will not be easily upheld after their events. “I think we do need to be really cautious and have very careful monitoring of the situation at the event as well as after," he said.
The news of a spike in COVID cases follows recent backlash over regulations that are preventing Black athletes from competing. Last week, US track star Sha’Carri Richardson was barred from competing after she tested positive for marijuana, which is not a performance enhancing substance. Days later, South African track gold medalist Caster Semenya failed to qualify for the Olympics after she was made to switch events due to hormone requirements, because her natural testosterone levels exceeded the maximum level allowed, them.us reported.
Further, Britain’s first Black woman swimmer, Alice Dearing was banned from wearing a Soul Cap, which makes swim caps made to protect dreadlocks, afros, weaves, braids, and thick and curly hair. The rule is being reconsidered as it would discourage Black athletes from competing. As a result of these transgressions, many are accusing the Olympics organisation of transphobia, racism, and misogyny.
The Olympics are scheduled to carry on amid a global pandemic, which has seen global vaccination inequities and a recent surge in cases due to new infectious variants, and much is left to consider. If cases continue to rise, the Games will likely see more restrictions put in place.