The Saturday Debate: Can the Tokyo Olympics still happen this summer?

by Raywat Deonandan & Helen Lenskyj

Jan 23, 2021

This article was the “No” component of a two-side debate. The “yes” side was written by Dick Pound. This debate was published in The Toronto Star on Jan 23, 2021.


In March 2020, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) reluctantly and belatedly announced the decision to postpone the 2020 Tokyo Olympics to July 2021. Since that time, organizers have addressed the challenges of doing so — in most cases, inadequately.

In September 2020, the IOC and Tokyo’s organizing committee developed the new ‘Tokyo model … fit for a post-corona world’. Tragically, there is no evidence that this “post-corona world” will materialize by July 23, the proposed start date. Nor is there evidence that the Tokyo model and its safety measures are even close to adequate in the face of today’s global pandemic.

The Tokyo model was designed to “maximize cost savings and increase efficiencies” through “optimizations and simplifications.” Safety measures included reduced numbers of personnel and spectators and streamlined transport services. On the issue of athletes’ health, measures relating to travel, distancing, PPE, testing/tracking/isolating, and vaccines would be addressed.

A December report stated that athletes and support staff would not need to quarantine, but would be required to have negative test results prior to arrival. The now-routine rules concerning mask-wearing, social distancing, hand sanitizing and ventilation would apply. Vaccination (if available) would not be mandatory, but athletes are urged to act responsibly by getting it. Suggestions that Olympic athletes could queue-jump got mixed review, mostly negative.

If current events have a deja-vu quality, it’s because we have been here before. In early 2020, the IOC’s worked overtime issuing COVID-related pronouncements. In mid-February, one key member announced that, based on advice from the World Health Organization, “there’s no case for any contingency planning or cancelling the Games or moving the Games.” By this time, dozens of international sport federations were postponing or cancelling 2020 events.

Some frustrated athletes challenged the IOC members’ relentless and unrealistic optimism. Hayley Wickenheiser called it “insensitive and irresponsible” for them to insist on proceeding.

IOC President Thomas Bach’s preferred “beacon of hope” and “light at the end of the tunnel” language was a poor substitute for evidence-based policy and decision-making.

Fast forward to 2021 and the same patterns are being repeated: mixed messages and baseless rhetoric about the power of sport to “combat the virus” and heal the world.

Presently, the world is experiencing subsequent waves of infection. The death tolls exceed those of the first wave. The epidemic is worsening, not lessening. Mitigation efforts — masking, distancing, and avoiding mass gatherings — are slowing community transmission but not eliminating it.

Professional sports associations have experienced — and continue to experience — organizational COVID outbreaks and game cancellations. Containment efforts have been extraordinary, with no expenses spared to make these games and practices as safe as possible, yet fail regularly, as athletes and employees continue to test positive. Perfect infection control in sports is not possible.

The promise of vaccine penetration and the limited respite of the summer months is tantalizing. But the most optimistic estimates don’t show Canada seeing full vaccination of its population before late September. In other parts of the world, that achievement might be years away. And the warmth and humidity of summer is not a panacea, as seen this past summer when the Toronto Blue Jays’ training camp suffered COVID cases.

Most concerning epidemiologically are the new variants of SARS-Cov2, which threaten to overwhelm our health care systems even faster. Future variants might even be able to evade our magical vaccines, which scientists have moved mountains to bring to us in record time.

The single best way to prevent such variants from arising is to slow transmission maximally until the world achieves herd immunity. This means removing from the table all unnecessary opportunities for infection of large groups.

Our species is in a literal race to immunize the world before the virus mutates an escape from the vaccines. Holding a large in-person international gathering gives COVID-19 a head-start in that race, and can move infection and new variants to the many countries of all the athletes attending. It’s the virus’s best hope for instant global distribution.

We have a chance to start returning much of the world to some semblance of normality by the end of the year. Let’s not lower our odds by prematurely staging an unnecessary mass infection risk.

Raywat Deonandan is an associate professor and epidemiologist with the Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Ottawa. Helen Lenskyj is professor emerita at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, the University of Toronto.