The Tokyo Olympics Are A Moral Disaster

Even by the Olympics’ horrible standards, holding the games during a pandemic is abhorrent.

In 2013, 80-year-old Kohei Jinno was evicted from his home in Tokyo so that Japan could build a new stadium to host the 2020 Summer Olympics. The Olympics regularly raze the homes of people like Jinno, who alongside his wife lived in a public housing complex. What sets him apart from the millions of others like him is that it was the second time it had happened: When the Olympics came to Tokyo in 1964, Jinno was evicted then too.

Jinno’s story, which he told Reuters this week, is a reminder that the Olympics are a moral disaster even in normal circumstances. The games are less a sporting event than they are a scheme to transfer public wealth to private coffers ― a budget-busting monstrosity that diverts billions of dollars in public money away from actual public needs, destroys the environment, and dramatically alters the lives of countless numbers of poor people and racial and ethnic minorities, whether by stealing their homes, criminalizing their livelihoods, or simply booting them out of town.

But this year, the games are taking place amid an ongoing pandemic that risks converting these Olympics from a mere disaster into an outright atrocity.

A May poll found that 80% of Japanese people opposed hosting the Tokyo Olympics; the number has fallen, but half of Japan still wants to cancel or postpone the games, which will take place in a country where just 12% of the adult population is fully vaccinated.
A May poll found that 80% of Japanese people opposed hosting the Tokyo Olympics; the number has fallen, but half of Japan still wants to cancel or postpone the games, which will take place in a country where just 12% of the adult population is fully vaccinated.
Carl Court via Getty Images

Japan, which has had more than 14,000 deaths from COVID-19, is less than two months out of a massive second wave of coronavirus cases that turned public opinion almost fully against the Olympics. There are already signs that another spike may be occurring in Tokyo, where the metro area has seen 12 consecutive days of rising cases. Tokyo is still partially locked down, and the government is mulling the extension of a state of emergency beyond its current July 11 expiration date. Just 12% of Japan’s eligible adults are fully inoculated.

It’s not hard to guess that things might soon worsen, and quickly: The world is currently staring down a new strain of the virus ― the delta variant ― that is more contagious and potentially more deadly than those we have dealt with over the past 18 months. The variant is already present in nearly 100 countries, and is on pace to become the dominant strain across the world soon, officials from the World Health Organization have said.

It’s easy to lose sight of how dangerous the pandemic remains from the vantage of the U.S. and Europe, where high vaccination rates have allowed many of the world’s richest people to return to something similar to normal. But most of the planet remains unvaccinated and vulnerable. The delta variant is ravaging even those countries, like Vietnam, that had broadly succeeded in thwarting the virus’s original spread. Countries around the world are reentering lockdowns and reinstating protective measures; nations the virus originally spared, particularly in Africa, are bracing for disaster.

The pandemic is still a dire emergency; it is hard to imagine a worse idea than convening some 15,000 athletes, and thousands more coaches, trainers and officials, from nearly 200 nations simply so they can play sports.

“We should not have the Olympics. It is absolutely clear, to any epidemiologist I have talked to, that it is insane to bring delegations from all over the world [to Japan].”

- Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, Duke University

The International Olympic Committee and its cheerleaders like to pretend that there is something virtuous about the Olympics. That they bring the world together in times of crisis, that sports can help us heal, that the pursuit of gold does not actually supersede the spirit of competition or the positive impact of sporting activity on public health. It’s a powerful myth, even if it is weakening, and NBC, Coca-Cola, Visa and other massive corporations will blanket television screens over the next month with commercials touting our ability to heal from and move past a plague that is not over.

That going forward with the games will lead to new infections and deaths is not mere conjecture. The Copa America soccer tournament in Brazil ― which has vaccinated a slightly larger share of its population than Japan ― is already responsible for nearly 200 new COVID-19 cases, a figure many public health experts there regard as a drastic undercount. The tournament may have quickened the spread of the lambda variant, which battered Peru and is already present in 27 countries, in Brazil and elsewhere in Latin America, the world’s hardest-hit region. Copa America involves just 10 teams with a maximum roster size of 28 players.

At least in Brazil there are no fans. The European soccer championships are currently taking place across the Atlantic and mostly in crowded stadiums. Over the last week, Europe’s number of coronavirus cases has increased by 10%, reversing a period in which the overall number of infections had declined for 10 consecutive weeks. The continent as a whole has some of the highest vaccination rates in the world, but Euro 2020 will still likely hasten the arrival of a new wave of cases, public health experts told Reuters this week. Much like Copa, the tournament is a far smaller endeavor than an Olympics, and whatever dangers have arisen during it will almost certainly pale in comparison to what occurs in Tokyo.

“We should not have the Olympics,” said Dr. Miguel Nicolelis, a Duke University scientist who has modeled Brazil’s COVID-19 outbreak and responses to it in hard-hit states, and criticized his country’s decision to host Copa America amid one of the world’s worst outbreaks. “It is absolutely clear, to any epidemiologist I have talked to, that it is insane to bring delegations from all over the world [to Japan].”

The Japanese public, Japanese doctors and many Japanese public officials, do not need to be reminded of this. More than 80% of Japanese people opposed hosting the games in a May poll, and while that number has dropped in recent weeks, still half of the population favors canceling the Olympics. Japanese nurses spoke out against the games after organizers requested that 500 of them be dispatched to provide volunteer medical services around the event: The request “shows how human life is being taken lightly,” one nurse told The Associated Press in May. The head of the Japanese doctors union has warned that hosting the event could lead to the development of an “Olympic variant” of the virus; public health officials there and around the world have said that the Olympics are likely to become a superspreader event. In May, nine Japanese governors called for the games to be canceled or postponed.

The International Olympic Committee does not care. The Olympic host city contract, the dictatorial, anti-democratic agreement that requires cities and countries to sign away their ability to govern themselves in service of the spectacle, does not allow anyone else but the IOC to cancel, postpone or “make significant changes to the scope” of the games. The IOC has no interest in doing that. There is money to be made, so the show must go on.

Protesters calling for the cancellation of the Tokyo Olympics marched through the city in mid-June. Japanese doctors have warned that holding the games amid the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to the creation of an "Olympic variant" of the virus that spreads across the world.
Protesters calling for the cancellation of the Tokyo Olympics marched through the city in mid-June. Japanese doctors have warned that holding the games amid the COVID-19 pandemic could lead to the creation of an "Olympic variant" of the virus that spreads across the world.
Takashi Aoyama via Getty Images

The Tokyo Games will further expose the essential truth of the Olympic movement, which is that it is not about sports at all. The games are a grift meant to further enrich an already wealthy few. Everyone else ― the poor people whose homes are in the wrong place, the Indigenous forests and the people who inhabit them, the Japanese nurse who has to treat an Olympic executive or athlete at the expense of a COVID-19 patient, the hotel worker who gets infected because thousands of people who should not be in Japan nevertheless are ― is entirely expendable.

Perhaps this is worth it to you, and perhaps it is worth it to the athletes who will travel to Tokyo to fulfill their lifelong dreams too. It is not the fault of fans, or of athletes who have trained their entire lives for a single moment of glory, that the people in charge created a destructive event and use the participants as human shields to hide the problems the games cause and exacerbate with devastating regularity.

But most fans and athletes are done a disservice by the Olympic setup too. Simone Biles should be able to set new standards for what gymnasts can do at events that are not designed to inflict unnecessary suffering. Olympic athletes, and those who do not quite make it, should be free to compete in high-level sports that do not routinely subject them to physical, emotional, financial and, as we have learned in the U.S., even sexual abuse. We should be allowed to watch these athletes compete without the knowledge that Kohei Jinno and other people had to lose their homes so it could happen; that homeless people were swept off the streets so that Olympic tourists didn’t have to see them; that a rare forest had to be torn down to build a venue that won’t be useful in six weeks; or that athletes had to suffer because we have decided that’s what it takes.

If that is not possible, the Olympics’ continued existence had no remaining moral justification even before COVID-19 ravaged the world. The games are, as I wrote three years ago, a plague whose only cure was the death of the IOC and a model that is not reformable or salvageable in anything resembling its current form. That these Olympics are proceeding even though they could become a vehicle for mass death via literal plague should lead the world to only one logical, and one moral, conclusion: The Olympics should not and cannot continue to exist. Not in Japan, not ever again.