What it will take to host the 2021 Summer Olympics

What it will take to host the 2021 Summer Olympics
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Back in March 2020, Japan and the International Olympic Committee (IOC) decided that delaying the 2020 Olympics was necessary, given the uncertainty and risks surrounding the SARS-CoV-2 virus and its then unknown impact on global public health. This decision was prudent, given the many unknowns at the time. 

Fast-forward one year and the same cries for postponement are ringing once again. 

In this case, Japan, the host country, wants to cancel the Olympics. In fact, 60 percent of the people living in Japan want it cancelled. Concerns about the spread of the virus in their country and the potential deleterious public health consequences on the Japanese people are the foundation for this cry to cancel the games. This anxiety is exacerbated by Japan being slow in vaccinating their population, ranking last amongst the G7 countries. 

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Are these concerns a sufficient reason to cancel or further delay the largest sporting event in the world? 

There is no right or wrong answer, but there are different answers that come with different risks and benefits. 

From Japan’s point of view, they do not want to assume the risk of millions of people, many possibly infected, entering their country and spreading the virus. The impact of uncontrolled surges in infections amongst Japan residents could strain health resources beyond tolerable levels.  

From the IOC point of view, they feel that the benefits of holding the games are substantial, as a global sporting event that brings almost every country in the world together with a common purpose, and that the public health risks can be managed with appropriate adjustments to how the games are held. 

Weighing the risk and benefits, the 2021 Olympics can be held. The question yet to be answered is, under what conditions? 

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The time period for the games could be extended from 16 days to 24, or even 30 days, reducing the density of people around the games. 

Place restrictions on when participants arrive into Japan. Ask participants to arrive no more than 72 hours before events, and depart within 72 hours of the completion of their events. To adjust to different time zones, participants can arrive in other parts of Japan than Tokyo. This will thin out the pool of participants, reducing risk of infection spread. 

Daily or near-daily testing of all participants (athletes, coaches and support personnel) should be mandatory. Everyone on site must be tested every day or two, with rapid turnaround times (ideally under six hours) so rogue infections can be stopped quickly, limiting the spread of the virus. 

Numerous professional and amateur sporting events have been held over the past six months, with considerable success in limiting the spreading of the virus. Lessons learned can be applied, with zero tolerance for non-adherence to public health protocols. This would mean that spectators will be severely limited, or even eliminated for events.   

All participants (athletes, coaches, support personnel) should be required to be vaccinated as a condition for attending the games. With seven weeks before the games begin, now is the time to get the vaccines to each country and allocate them to the necessary people to meet this requirement. The United States has ample excess vaccine inventory to facilitate distributing these vaccines, which would require no more than one million doses in total.  

As the host country, Japan can only see the risk of holding the event. This risk is based on holding the games the same way that they have always been held, which is not possible.  

The 2021 Olympics will not be business as usual, but it can be held under the appropriate modifications and adjustments. Pleas from the IOC to “sacrifice” will not assuage Japan’s anxiety. What can be new protocols for holding the games in a manner that risks are minimized and managed, and benefits are maximized for all participants.   


Sheldon H. Jacobson, PhD, is a founder professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based assessment to evaluate and inform public policy and public health.