Cancelling the Olympics?

July 22, 2021 09:55
Photo: Reuters

Could there be a case for cancelling the Olympics, especially in light of the recent surge in athletes testing positive for COVID-19?

At first glance, the argument seems unconvincing. After all, vaccination rates have been going up; Japan’s public health infrastructure seems to be readily built and equipped for the “minor bump” in cases that would ensue; above all, surely sports and international viewers come first – over COVID-19, which is in (supposed) recline.

Yet these claims – these assertive propositions, raised by those who are approaching the Olympics with the admirably gung-ho attitude of an abandoned maverick, do not hold much substantive water. In practice, letting the Olympics go ahead as scheduled is an awful idea – and here’s why.

Firstly, the Olympics are bound to be a superspreader event. Irrespective of how rigorously social distancing (if at all) is enforced and upheld, or how diligently the volunteers seek to sterilise and cleanse any and all surfaces at the venue and the Olympic Village, the intense and high degree of human-to-human contact (both for official and… unofficial reasons) is likely to culminate at outbreaks that fundamentally cannot be contained. To expect that such outbreaks could be contained, suggests that we should have an ultra-high degree of confidence in athletes, coaches, and public health personnel manning the village – frankly, such expectations are not only mismatched and disjointed from reality; they also reflect a deeply hubristic mentality that does no good, whatsoever, to tackling the ongoing epidemic.

Secondly, on the question of variants. Setting aside the question of whether there exist carriers in the Olympic village, or how swiftly they are quarantined and isolated from the Japanese public – even if we grant that none of the ill leave the village or infect locals, none of these precautionary measures could adequately address the possibility of cross-infection within the village. It doesn’t take a PhD in biomedical sciences to know that permitting the mingling and fraternising between a highly clustered group of individuals, would only exacerbate the probability of unintended and unwanted variants arising. Now, one could argue that the odds are relatively slim, and the chances for the rise of an unassailable, uncontainable variant are too insignificant for us to be truly bothered by such “speculative” incidents – yet this is a rather uninspiring claim! Public health policy cannot and should not be left to chances.

Thirdly, in before someone raises the argument from the perspective of athletes’ wellbeing – it’s worth noting that the reckless “going-ahead-as-scheduled” promulgated by the foolhardy, could well pose long-term health risks and harms for the athletes involved. Long COVID is a thing. Dying from COVID (even if one is a healthy, doubly vaccinated adult) is also a thing. It would be understandable, if this Olympic were the only and single Olympic that all (or most) of those in attendance could attend, that some would argue that we ought not starve athletes of their “only” chances at competing – yet when postponement could have been adopted and implemented as a substitute for hosting the Games this year, to have gone ahead with the Games is frankly deeply irresponsible to even those who opt to attend and compete in them. Athletes should never be forced to choose between competitive success and their own health – that’s also partly why illegal doping and substances are outlawed at international sporting events.

Finally, on optics and signalling. One of the most oft-cited reasons for the defiance of lockdowns and public health precautions, is the view that “life must go on”; indeed, it was the insistence that “regular life must go on” that spurred Boris, amongst other factors, to have gone ahead with the incredibly intrepid (or impetuous, ill-thought-out?) “Freedom Day” just this Monday. The UK may well be reaping what its Prime Minister has sown – again, collective responsibility at its finest (not!). We should not and cannot afford to send out the wrong message – that in face of frankly under-substantiated reasons, e.g. in this case, for rushing ahead with the games this year (as opposed to the next, or the next!), public health policy decisions can and will be undertaken with little to no cost to those who butcher their making. Accountability requires sensitivity and consequences – and it would only become increasingly, and tragically, clear, that pressing ahead with the Games was a mistake. Who, then, should be blamed for this?

Who, then, would be held responsible for the devastation inflicted upon the Japanese populace, or, indeed, athletes returning home (or stranded, as a result of travel restrictions that may or may not be introduced hastily)? These questions must be answered – elsewise, we’d be left with an eerily familiar scenario: one where injustices and mistakes were made, and no one – absolutely no one – could be held responsible, in time, till it’s only too late. Neither “late” nor “whodunnit?” is an adequate response to mistakes and slip-ups during a pandemic.

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Assistant Professor, HKU