As COVID rises in Japan, Olympic athletes must sign waivers promising not to sue if they get sick

The 2021 Olympics are less than two weeks away, and Tokyo is entering another state of emergency prompted by a resurgence of COVID-19 in the region. Restaurants must cut hours, and alcohol sales are prohibited for the duration of the Olympic Games. Officials hope these measures will stop large local gatherings as nearly 100,000 people — such as athletes, journalists, and staff — come to Japan. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) says the games will be safe, but it’s also making athletes personally take on all coronavirus-related risks by signing liability waivers.

The language might be new, but it is revealing, says Sally Jenkins, sports columnist for the Washington Post. She draws similarities to the verbage used in the 2016 Olympics, when athletes faced the risk of contracting Zika in Brazil. 

“You have optics on the one hand — the IOC saying, ‘Oh, it's going to be safe and secure.’ And yet the substance of what they're doing is inserting legal language about liability that indicates they think there could be a very serious problem,” she tells KCRW.

Jenkins says no uniform vaccination standards exist for these athletes, and points out that vaccinations don’t unilaterally prevent people from catching or spreading COVID-19. She says so far, two vaccinated members of the Ugandan track delegation tested positive. Many Japanese residents aren’t vaccinated either

“You have a potential super spreader event. You have people converging in large numbers, living for two weeks in the Olympic Village, where the dining hall seats 5000 people at a time, and then returning to countries that have very uneven vaccination standards.”

The IOC does have a playbook for COVID safety measures, which includes practicing social distancing and retaining a bubble within the Olympic Village. But Jenkins notes that the Olympic Village isn’t all that safe.

“There's going to be a lot of communal living in the Olympic Village in Tokyo. The suites there are for two up to eight athletes at a time, sharing bathrooms,” she says. “You've got a lot of athletes … all trying to compete and live and work and train in the same gyms, in the same dining halls, and in the same dormitories.”

Jenkins adds that the medical professionals she’s spoken with haven’t blessed the Olympics. 

“I haven't heard of a medical expert who thinks that any of this is a particularly good idea. … The medical community in Japan ... is already overstressed and … deeply resentful of maybe being diverted to care for an Olympic population in the middle of a state of emergency.”

Jenkins adds that IOC President Thomas Bach doesn’t have many fans in Japan, especially after calling residents there Chinese today

“He's not a very popular figure. The five-star hotel accommodations that contractually Japan has had to provide to the IOC, combined with the spiraling cost, the Japanese people feel very much the way athletes do about the International Olympic Committee, which is that they are hoarding all of the revenues and offloading all of the risk onto other people, whether it's the athletes or the Japanese people.”



  • Sally Jenkins - Sports writer and columnist for the Washington Post