The Olympics are the perfect way to spread a virus, but a decision on the Tokyo Games can wait

Pedestrians walk near the The New National Stadium, the main venue for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games, in Tokyo, on Feb. 19, 2020. MUST CREDIT: Bloomberg photo by Noriko Hayashi.

Every four years, the Summer Olympics attract more than 11,000 athletes, about 25,000 journalists and hundreds of thousands of spectators from more than 200 countries to one spot on the globe. Once the Games end, they all scatter home, back to every corner of the planet. It is a logistical miracle, the athletic pinnacle and, as framed by the worldwide spread of the novel coronavirus, something else entirely.

“You bring a lot of people together, and then you ship them back all over the world: That’s the perfect way to transmit,” said Yvonne Maldonado, a Stanford University professor and infectious disease researcher. “If you really want to disseminate a disease, that would be the way to do it.”

Olympic organizers this past week faced questions about how the coronavirus could alter the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, scheduled to begin in late July. Health experts cautioned that any forecast about the fate of the Olympics would be hugely speculative because of how much remains unknown about the coronavirus, how much it will spread and how effectively those infected will be able to be treated.

But they also expressed confidence that the International Olympic Committee and organizers in Japan will face scrutiny for whatever direction they take. The Olympics last were canceled in 1940 and 1944 because of World War II.

“Regardless of where we are in this epidemic, my expectation is if it’s not resolved by then, people will be having to make the hard decision of whether or not we have the Olympics,” said University of Nebraska professor Ali Khan, formerly the director of the Office of Public Health Preparedness and Response at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “If we are still in the midst of this epidemic in five months, definitely people will be asking whether or not we need to cancel the Olympics.”

The Olympics defy the practice of social distancing, which many world leaders have enacted to contain the coronavirus. Saudi Arabia suspended the Umrah pilgrimage. Switzerland has banned gatherings of more than 1,000 people. Japan, the host country, canceled school for about a month.

“The question really is, how fast is this going to burn out,” Maldonado said. “Will it burn by out by July or August? I don’t know. . . . I think April is a little bit optimistic.”

In an interview with the Associated Press, Canadian IOC member Dick Pound said a decision about whether to go forward with the Olympics would have to come by late May, about two months before the start of the Games, and if the coronavirus poses too large a threat then, “you’re probably looking at a cancellation” as opposed to moving or postponing the Olympics.

But most Olympic officials have sounded an optimistic tone. Toshiro Muto, the Tokyo 2020 CEO, called a news conference Wednesday to distance his organization from Pound’s remarks, saying the May deadline is not something that has been formally discussed among organizers. IOC President Thomas Bach told Japanese media in a conference call Thursday that the IOC is “fully committed to a successful Olympic Games in Tokyo starting July 24″ and refused to discuss any alternatives such as postponing, moving or canceling the Games. The IOC also said Pound’s comments did not reflect its position.

“Our basic thoughts are that we will go ahead with the Olympic and Paralympic Games as scheduled,” Muto said in Japanese at the news conference. “For the time being, the situation of the coronavirus infection is, admittedly, difficult to predict, but we will take measures such that we’ll have a safe Olympic and Paralympic Games.”

Khan said Olympic officials need to be more realistic and transparent in their public messaging.

“They should let people know that we are currently in the midst of a pandemic, and social distancing is a significant public response element of pandemics,” Khan said. “We should expect that we will have to factor that into the Olympics. I do not like the message that the risk is low and there’s nothing to worry about and things will be fine. I think they should engage their community to say that there’s a possibility if this epidemic is not in check, we will need to make adjustments and cancel the event. That’s what I would want to hear: If they have to cancel the Olympics, what are they going to do?”

The best hope for holding the Olympics may lie in extreme outcomes: Either countries decide to live with the risks – perhaps because the virus proves less deadly as more cases come to light – or the virus becomes so pervasive that holding the Games makes little difference.

“There may be less of an impetus, paradoxically, to cancel it because it may be so widespread it may not be as impactful to cancel it,” said Amesh Adalja, a Senior Scholar at the Johns Hopkins University Center for Health Security. “At that time, hopefully, we would have a better handle on the case-fatality ratio, understanding how severe or mild this is going to be.”

Columbia University epidemiology professor Stephen Morse, in an email, agreed with this line of thought: “As of a week or two ago, with the virus still causing only limited outbreaks outside of China, I would have thought the Tokyo Olympics would very likely have to be canceled or postponed. Once it’s very widespread, like a flu pandemic, or there’s a vaccine readily available, the question of canceling the Olympics will become moot. . . . Once the infection is everywhere, people would no longer worry about the danger of spreading or catching it. Instead, it becomes more a matter of whether there are enough well people.”

Health experts agreed with Pound’s assessment that holding the Olympics will be a binary choice and that moving or altering the Games would present too many thorny issues. Even if researchers develop a quick coronavirus test, the logistics of administering it on such a giant scale make it unfeasible.

“Maybe they limit the admittance of people who are in certain age groups or have certain underlying conditions,” Maldonado said. “That starts getting tricky: Are you going to tell people if you’re over 50 you can’t go to the Olympics?”

The sports world already has felt effects from the coronavirus. The LPGA canceled its entire Asian swing series of tournaments, Italian soccer teams have played games in empty stadiums, and the Chinese sports calendar has been wiped clean.

Canceling the Olympics would be a much starker decision, but it’s one organizers are going to have to grapple with.

“In my heart of hearts, I don’t think they’ll be canceled,” Maldonado said. “But the specter of it coming up is shocking.”



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