Night is on the streets of Ibaraki Prefecture in Japan when the Olympic torch passes. Viral video shows the slow running of a torchbearer next to spectators lined up along the way. Then, as the flames pass, the woman in the crowd shoots a water pistol.
“Put out the Olympic flame! Oppose the Tokyo Olympics! she shouts. Security rushes around her.
Such is the background for the upcoming Olympic and Paralympic Games, which are set to begin on July 23 in Tokyo – where covid-19 cases are on the rise, prompting the city to declare its fourth state of emergency since the start of the pandemic. An increasing number of cases are of particular concern as the vaccination rate in the country remains low. Only 18% of Japan’s population is fully vaccinated.
Still, the International Olympic Committee is putting pressure. They are a stake billion dollars in canceled costs—Tokyo Olympic Stadium it only costs $ 1.4 billion – as well billions more in potential revenue for the IOC, Japan, local organizers and broadcasters.
The global health crisis is not over yet, the staggering amount of money and the government preparing to pay off the gamble: the forces clashing in Tokyo are unprecedented. And even with strict new rules on the games, experts worry that covid-19 could deteriorate in Japan.
Nearly 100,000 athletes, staff and family members and others are expected to enter Japan for the Olympic and Paralympic Games, and organizers say they are trying to protect themselves to the maximum.
Brian McCloskey, chairman of an independent panel advising the IOC on covid-19 mitigation measures for Tokyo, acknowledged the concerns. To reduce the risk of the virus spreading, athletes, staff and others will be closely monitored, he says.
“The goal is to have no coronavirus in Tokyo,” McCloskey says. “The goal is to stop those individual cases from becoming clusters and wider events.”
Athletes, staff and officials will be tested at various intervals during the Games. For example, residents of the Olympic Village will be tested every day, while Japanese workers who come into close contact with athletes will be tested more often than people who direct traffic. McCloskey says the contact tracking system will be used in the Olympic Village to curb any cases that arise. Anyone entering Japan will need to download the contact search app, and athletes and media members should turn on GPS tracking on their phones. Organizers say location data will only be used if there are cases that speak to it.
As the games approached, the measures became stricter. Audience members from other countries were banned a few months ago, and earlier this month it was announced that there would be no audiences in and around Tokyo.
McCloskey says there is a precedent for running games amid public health threats – even if they weren’t at the same level as covid before. When advising the IOC for the 2012 London Olympics, organizers considered the potential for a SARS pandemic, he says. Even before the 2016 Games in Rio De Janeiro, Brazil, there were concerns about Zika (WHO said later no cases have been reported in athletes or spectators).
For Tokyo, the IOC has published several “manual books” of instructions for athletes, staff, volunteers and the press.
But despite strict rules, games will inevitably mean that people mix and communicate in ways that would not otherwise happen.
“It’s not just the event itself,” says Linsey Marr, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Virginia Tech, who is a leading expert on airborne virus transmission. “Everything else is related to the event: hotels, restaurants, transportation.”