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Pandemic Olympics: Cheer the athletes, whatever you think of the IOC

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When our children were young, every summer we took a vacation to interesting places around the world. One of the most memorable was the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta.

The emotions were palpable when, 20 feet behind our opening-game seats, suddenly appeared Muhammed Ali, hands trembling, to light the torch. World records were set in the sprints. We were about 100 feet away when Carl Lewis, at age 35, won his fourth gold medal in the long jump. Charles Barkley led the dominant USA men’s basketball team. There were fierce boxing and wrestling matches. 

I love the Olympics, the athletes, the competition.

I have contempt for the International Olympic Committee and its history — marked by greed, corruption and racism.

Watch the Bryant Gumbel HBO documentary from five years ago that captured this long history.

This year, even holding the Tokyo games, which start in two weeks, is questionable. COVID forced postponement of the 2020 Olympics. The thought was that the pandemic would be gone by now. While there’s division among health care experts whether the Olympics should be held, this much is clear: There will be hundreds of thousands of athletes, coaches, trainers, officials, media, volunteers from all over the world — and that is especially risky with the newest variants that are much more transmissible. Only a small fraction — less than 3 percent — of Japan’s citizens have been fully vaccinated. Already 10,000 fearful Japanese volunteers have dropped out.

Foreign spectators will be banned, some Japanese will not. The Emperor, in a highly unusual public warning, said he is “extremely worried” about the pandemic dangers. A poll shows an overwhelming majority of Japanese citizens are similarly concerned.

There are all the elements of a potential super-spreader.

Supporters insist rigorous precautions are being taken and point to the many successful sports events that have been held: American basketball, baseball and football, global soccer, tennis and golf tournaments. All of these are microscopic in scope compared to the Tokyo games.

The only rationale for the organizers: money.

Andrew Zimbalist, the Smith College economist and sports finance expert, estimates cancellation would cost the IOC about $4 billion in broadcast revenue alone.

The canard promulgated by the IOC is that the Olympic games — the Olympic spirit — contribute to world peace, nations working together, getting to know each other better.

There are countless examples of that on an individual basis. There are none on a geopolitical level.

That was the rationale for giving the 1936 games to Nazi Germany. Instead, Hitler turned it into a propaganda opportunity, and a year later the Buchenwald concentration camp opened, and a year after that he invaded Czechoslovakia.

The United States pulled out of the 1980 Moscow Olympics to protest the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. It was eight more years before the Soviets pulled out.

Following the 2008 Beijing Olympics and the 2014 Sochi winter Olympics, the Chinese and Russians have increased their human rights abuses.

Olympics defenders like to point to North and South Korea selectively cooperating in the last winter Olympics, but this doesn’t appear to have produced more “peace” on the Korean peninsula.

Still, with all this negativity, I will watch — am excited even — about the Olympics for the one reason that justifies the games: the competition, the spectacular athletes, the culmination of years of vigorous training.

Sexism no longer dominates: Almost half the participants will be women. Ever since the infamous Avery Brundage left, the ruse of amateurism vanished. Our family loves the paralympics a month later, showcasing profiles of determination and courage.

There will be magical moments in Tokyo. Watching the greatest gymnast of all time, Simone Biles, twisting in ways unimaginable; the indefatigable Katie Ledecky racking up more golds in the swimming pool; Allyson Felix, the great runner and relatively recent mom, and the charismatic women’s soccer team led by Meghan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan. I’m not leaving out the men like sprinter Noah Lyles and swimmer Caeleb Dressel; they have a daunting task though to break records set by Usain Bolt and Michael Phelps.

Also — from my perspective — if any medalist wants to symbolically protest anything, go ahead. In 1968, American sprinters John Carlos and Tommie Smith raised their fists in a Black Power salute on the medal stand and were condemned by the Olympic committee and suffered recriminations. Today they are celebrated as profiles in courage.

If the suspension is upheld of American sprinter Sha’Carri Richardson who tested positive for marijuana, which isn’t a performance enhancing drug, I think someone should protest.

While I’m into my “U-S-A! U-S-A!” chants, there are great other stories — none more so than Naomi Osaka, the top-ranked women’s tennis player, who dropped out of the French Open citing mental health challenges. I’m going to put aside patriotic fervor and hope she wins for her home country.

There will be lots of thrilling contests. We can hope for the best — and pray these games won’t be marred by tragedy.

Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then The International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.

Tags coronavirus pandemic International Olympic Committee Japan Olympic Games Paralympic Games Sports Summer Olympics superspreader event Tokyo Tokyo Olympic Games World peace

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