It's not too late to cancel the Olympic Games

It's not too late to cancel the Olympic Games
© (© Tokyo 2020 and TMG via the IOC)

Sports are fun to play and watch. But this year’s Olympics in Tokyo, which begin July 23 without spectators, has become mired in COVID-19 politics and health concerns as daily reports emerge of players testing positive for the disease. Maybe it’s time to re-visit the premise that these games are vital for world peace.

The Olympic Games originated in ancient Greece as many as 3,000 years ago. They were revived in the late 19th century and have become the world’s preeminent sporting competition. A form of public diplomacy, international sports is a vital part of how nations and cultures interact. Think of it as the United Nations with less political baggage.

Competition among nations happens on many levels — political, economic and social. To have competition in sports is remarkable because there is no real warfare, no cyber competition, no military troops actually fighting. There is pageantry, pride and play.

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But COVID has changed everything. At first, it was just a few cases. Many of us watched for news of our local teams. When Washington Wizards basketball player Bradley Beal was told he would not play in the Olympics, I cried. It was Beal’s childhood dream to be part of the Games and he trained hard.

As a tennis player, I was heartbroken when news then broke that tennis star Coco Gauff would not be going to Tokyo due to a positive COVID test.

Many of us thought it would just be a few isolated cases and that Japan had a good handle on the situation.

Then over the weekend two athletes living inside the Tokyo bubble tested positive for the coronavirus, and on Sunday the South African Football Association announced that three members of its soccer delegation had tested positive, calling into question whether even the best health measures are enough protection from the virus.

The rise of the Delta variant has complicated Olympic planning, leaving many athletes afraid. Amid heightened concerns over COVID-19, the U.S. women’s gymnastics team has elected to stay in a hotel rather than board in Tokyo’s Olympic Village.

Adding to pandemic fear is extreme heat. This year’s games could be the hottest on record, leaving players vulnerable to sickness and injuries.

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You have to feel badly for Japan. Last year the Olympics were cancelled due to the pandemic leaving Japan in the unenviable position of host without a party. Determined to hold onto its role, the Japanese government put together intense health and safety protocols, including a testing and quarantining regimen, social distancing, solo living quarters and other measures that turned the Olympic Village into a sealed container. 

The result has been disappointing for athletes and has created global scrutiny over what could end up being a super spreader event. The International Olympic Committee has pressed forward, dispatching its chairman to Hiroshima for the obligatory announcement of peace. But his visit was met with protests. That should be a warning sign.

So maybe it is time to call it quits. 

Truth be told, the reason the Games should never have gone forward is that the citizens of the host nation doesn't want them. Over 80 percent of Japanese citizens want the games cancelled. Olympic competition is a way for a nation to express pride in hosting international games. If the nation does not want it, there is little reason to hold it.

Unless, of course, the Olympics have just become a major advertising blitz and a haven for sports journalists, the original spirit has truly been lost. 

The Olympics are always a major draw for sponsorship dollars, and the Tokyo Games are no exception. This year, the Olympics have netted more than 60 sponsor and partner brands at various levels of endorsement from Coca-Cola and Toyota, Samsung and Procter & Gamble and other so-called “worldwide partners” — the priciest and most coveted sponsorship tier.

But now Toyota says it won’t air any Olympic-themed advertisements on Japanese television — presumably so as not to alienate customers.

So, despite the loss of big bucks on ads, what is the real harm in re-scheduling the Games to a safer time? Yes, the logistics would be a nightmare and athletes would be devastated, as will be fans. But there is still time to put the Olympics on ice. 

What should be a time for celebration has turned into a COVID competition that robs everyone of enjoying the event. Let’s find a new date on the calendar for an old but important tradition.

Tara D. Sonenshine is a former U.S. under-secretary of state for public diplomacy and public affairs.