Olympics will go on, despite rising COVID cases in Japan. How will athletes stay safe?

Written by Danielle Chiriguayo, produced by Angie Perrin

The 2021 Olympics in Tokyo are slated to start at the end of July. But last week, Japan declared a coronavirus-related state of emergency. The country’s been hit by another surge of new cases, prompting what’s described as a fourth wave. Movie theaters, department stores, and bars are closed until mid-May. And so far, only about 1% of its population is fully vaccinated.   

The International Olympic Committee (IOC) met this week to update its COVID protocols in response to the surge. More than 15,000 athletes from around the world are traveling to Japan to compete in the summer games. 

So far, it’s unclear what COVID-19 protocols the IOC will roll out for athletes this summer, says Sally Jenkins, sports columnist for the Washington Post. There will be no vaccination mandates, meaning each nation will be working with different health standards and levels of vaccinations. No international spectators will be allowed, which Jenkins says could help with developing a competition bubble. 

“The playbooks are still evolving. There's a lot we don't know about the protocols. They're making it up as they go along, frankly.”

Jenkins says money has led to what she refers to as “irrational” decision-making when planning the upcoming games. She says the Japanese government has spent between $15 to $30 billion on preparing for the summer games. Companies like NBC-Comcast, Coca-Cola and Procter & Gamble also have a lot of stake. 

“Thomas Bach, the head of the IOC, said just the other day that they're not talking about whether the games will go on, but rather how the games will go on. And so they're being very intransigent on this issue. It's already cost a lot of money to postpone them once,” Jenkins says. 

She says another huge concern is how Japan will fare through this next wave, especially as seniors make up one-third of its population. 

Jenkins points out that it’s unclear how safe the actual games might be if the Olympics proceeds in July. She references the unhealthy water quality at the 2016 summer Olympics in Rio. 

“One of the things the IOC had said it would do, one of the requirements for Rio hosting the games, was to clean up its waters. That didn't happen. The waters, in fact, were not fine in Rio. And in fact, there were lots of germs and viruses and some athletes got sick,” she says. “Unfortunately, the amount of money concerned here makes the IOC statements and actions sometimes untrustworthy from a public health standpoint.”

It’s unclear whether the Olympics could be postponed again, Jenkins says. But she explains that the last year has been tough on the presumptive athletes. 

“It's a tormenting uncertainty, what they've been going through. They're creatures of schedule, and they're creatures of very rigid training regimens. And all of this uncertainty and all of the delay has been, I think, pretty hard on them mentally and emotionally — when you've devoted so much of your life for such a brief window of success.”

She adds, “This is their reason for being. Athletes are very ephemeral creatures. Their window of greatness is very narrow. They train for four years for events that may only last a few seconds, or less than four minutes.”



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