In Tokyo, nerves are frayed and critics are loud, but the Olympics plow forward

TOKYO — Throughout the tumultuous buildup to the Tokyo Olympics, International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach has seemed impervious to both criticism and occasionally reality, not only insisting the Games would go ahead but promising they would be both “safe and secure.”

He now claims it was all an act.

“We had doubts every day,” Bach said Tuesday. “We deliberated and discussed. There were sleepless nights. Like everyone else in the world, we did not know — I did not know — what the future would hold.”

If Bach indeed had sleepless nights in the months leading up to the Olympics, he must have been awake much of these past few days.

On Monday, the first cases of the coronavirus were detected among athletes within the Olympic Village, when three members of the South African men’s soccer team, including two players, tested positive, throwing Thursday’s opening game with Japan into serious doubt. So far, at least 67 athletes, officials and other workers involved in the Olympics have tested positive this month.

The news of the rise in infections left one Japanese tabloid wondering this week if the entire Games might yet be canceled. Another speculated on whether the Paralympics, due to start in late August, might be called off. While critics have grown louder just days before the Opening Ceremonies, forces more powerful than skepticism — ranging from the financial to the legal to the political — continue to propel the Games inexorably forward.

And independent of those motivations, organizers say the concerns have been overblown. On Monday, organizing committee spokesman Masa Takaya said some positive cases were always to be expected in the run-up to the Games, but he stressed they made up roughly one-tenth of one percent of the 22,000 foreign visitors who had arrived in July to that point.

With more than 80,000 coronavirus tests having been taken by athletes and other personnel, the positivity rate stood at 0.1 percent, Tokyo 2020 organizing committee Seiko Hashimoto said, a number that prompted more relief than alarm. Tokyo 2020 executives provided no specifics on a rate of spread that require action, saying only that they would convene a meeting with Olympic power brokers if necessary.

“At this stage, we cannot speculate if the infection may spread or the infection may be under control,” Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto said.

Crucially, Masa said, the cases were detected and isolated.

That said, the cases represent the first real trial of a system of extensive testing that organizers have put in place. Athletes are tested every day, but infections don’t always show up immediately. The three South Africans in the soccer delegation had spent between two and three days in the Olympic Village before they tested positive. Presumably they brought the virus with them, incubated in their bodies, but it remains to be seen if they infected other people.

The positive tests occurred amid a local population where the virus is surging. Tokyo saw 1,387 new cases Tuesday, according to Japanese news service NHK, 557 more than a week prior and the first time there were more than 1,000 new cases on a Tuesday since January. As if to underscore the stakes, World Health Organization Director General Tedros Ghebreyesus traveled to Japan and addressed the IOC session.

The IOC says more than 85 percent of people living in the Village are vaccinated, but some coronavirus variants have shown an ability to infect inoculated people.

Still, for the past year, sports around the globe have navigated positive tests among athletes and plowed forward. In the National Football League last season, 222 players and 396 other team personnel tested positive between training camp and the end of the regular season. The cases caused multiple games to be rescheduled, but the league completed its season.

Earlier this month, England’s entire cricket team went into isolation or quarantine after seven players tested positive days before a series of matches against Pakistan. They fielded a replacement squad and won all three matches.

“Sports around the world have been doing this,” Stanford professor of global health and infectious diseases Yvonne Maldonado said. “It’s not rocket science, but you need to be very careful and consistent with what you do with every single person, because one infected person can get out there and ruin it for a bunch of others. You have to make sure everybody is on their best behavior in terms of adhering to the protocols.”

The Tokyo Olympics present an additional layer of complexities. Athletes and staffers came from every corner of the globe to mingle in a country with a mostly unvaccinated population. Major League Baseball teams and European soccer clubs can summon replacements or reschedule games for weeks later, but Olympic teams and individual athletes have no such option.

Maldonado sees the prospect of outright cancellation as remote and essentially unnecessary to consider. Still, the possibility of some events being canceled, and some medals not awarded, can’t be ruled out.

“If you’ve got one sport where many people on several teams are down, you may have to cancel,” Maldonado said. “I don’t think you can postpone anything. … There’s a lot of different pieces to this. There’s a lot of moving parts. I just think it would have to be pretty catastrophic to shut the whole thing down at this point.”

In an April 28 closed-door meeting, organizers warned Japanese sponsors that a cancellation even in the middle of the Games was “not impossible,” according to minutes leaked to the Tokyo Investigative Newsroom Tansa, a private news website.

But from a legal point of view, canceling the Games at this stage is simply “unthinkable,” said Irwin Kishner, executive chairman and co-chair of the sports law group at New York law firm Herrick, Feinstein LLP.

“It’s the Titanic going down, or the unsinkable battleship,” Kishner said. “There would be billions of dollars of consequences and years’ worth of trying to untangle the mess — and that’s why I would find it highly, highly unlikely it would happen.”

Cancellation could leave athletes and officials stranded in the Olympic Village and elsewhere in Japan without immediate flights home, and also would unleash a morass of complicated issues, without any clear set of legal documents to govern what happens next, he said.

“You could guarantee that there would be ensuing litigation out of that type of a doomsday scenario,” Kishner said. “One possibility: the government of Japan obviously controls its jurisdiction, territorial and so forth. They say, ‘Let’s close it down.’ The IOC says no. What does that mean? In a legal sense, how does that translate through to the various agreements where all these dollars have been contracted to go all different ways?”

Politically, it is not any more imaginable. After relentlessly insisting all year the Games should go ahead, cancellation would be a massive loss of face for Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, as well as for Bach.

“Politically it would be a catastrophe for Suga,” said Tobias Harris, senior fellow for Asia at the Center for American Progress.

With a leadership election for the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) due in September, Harris said such a scenario probably would see Japan’s leader “shown the exit.”

It would also be a massive blow to the corporate chieftains who have poured their investors’ money into the Games, and it could lead them to wreak revenge by withdrawing support for the LDP at general elections later this year, said Michael Cucek, an expert on Japanese politics at Temple University Japan. Worse still, it could be seen as a humiliation after so much national pride has been invested in hosting the Games safely.

“Beijing is hosting the Winter Olympics in half a year’s time. For Japan to fail to host an Olympics and the PRC [People’s Republic of China] to succeed only a few months later would be perceived as Japan’s ultimate humiliation,” Cucek wrote in an email.

“There is not a bureaucrat in Kasumigaseki [the Tokyo neighborhood where most cabinet ministry offices are located] or fanatic in right-wing circles who is ready to accept such a humiliation.”

With daily new coronavirus infections in Japan still a fraction of those in the United States or Europe, canceling the Games would leave the country facing ridicule, he said.

“An Olympics cancellation would have to be justified on the world stage,” he said. “The infection and death rates in Japan do not meet international definitions of a crisis. The GOJ [Government of Japan] and the elites are terrified of Japan becoming an international laughingstock.”

Michelle Ye Hee Lee contributed to this report.

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