Athletes are hoping to achieve their dreams in Tokyo at a fragile time in human history: COVID-19 has taken another turn with a rise in delta variant cases around the world, particularly in India, the United Kingdom and the United States.
The stands and arenas in Tokyo are remarkably empty while lifelong dreams of gold unfold, as international officials hoped limitations on attendance would create a protective bubble of vaccinated athletes. The pandemic, which quickly spread around the world in 2019 and 2020, has cast a long shadow on the 2020 Olympic Games — forever dubbed the “Pandemic Games” by some.
Commentators have marveled at the resiliency and creativity of athletes, many of whom had to find alternatives to training in facilities like gyms and swimming pools during the pandemic. The International Olympic Committee delayed the games for a year out of concern for COVID’s spread.
While people around the world feel inspired by the individual stories of the Olympians, it’s impossible to ignore the public health risks of holding an event of this size and scale during a global pandemic — not to mention other security concerns.
How to prevent COVID-19 outbreaks — and other threats — at the Tokyo Olympics
“The Olympics are a unique situation for COVID-19. Athletes from all over the world are housed together in crowded dormitories,” said Jeffrey Klausner, a clinical professor at the Keck School of Medicine of USC and a research scientist at the COVID-19 Pandemic Research Center. “Anything short of vaccination requirements and daily testing will likely lead to outbreaks and increased spread of infection.”
“Other sports organizations like professional baseball, football and basketball teams in the U.S. were very successful with COVID-19 control through daily testing,” he explained. “The good news is that athletes in general are at very low risk of serious disease, hospitalization or death due to their young age and outstanding physical health.”
Of course, COVID-19 is not the only hazard on organizers’ radar. A somber reminder came during the opening ceremony of the Tokyo Olympics when a moment of silence was held in honor of the 11 Israeli athletes killed in a terrorist attack at the 1972 Olympic Games in Munich.
“Despite the reduced presence of spectators, personnel and related staff this year due to COVID protocols, terrorist threats remain,” said Erroll Southers, the director of the Safe Communities Institute and of homegrown violent extremism studies at the USC Price School of Public Policy. “Having consulted on the security countermeasures for the Olympic Games in the past, I understand the complexity and steadfast commitment required to ensure the safety and security of the largest gathering of athletes in the world.”
Southers, who previously served as California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s deputy director in the California Office of Homeland Security and as chief of homeland security and intelligence for the Los Angeles World Airports Police Department, said he is confident that security countermeasures for the games “will be paramount and appropriately executed in Tokyo.”
The Olympics have become a lightning rod for criticism
“The Tokyo Olympics demonstrate a central tension of the Olympics,” said Ann Owens, an associate professor of sociology at the USC Dornsife College of Letters, Arts and Sciences. “It’s both a sports competition and a mega event. While the pandemic presents unique challenges, many recent games have faced criticisms around their size and their impact on cities.”
The criticisms include overspending. Recent examples include the 2016 Summer Games, for which the host city Rio de Janeiro spent an estimated $20 billion, well over the budgeted $14 billion, according to the Council of Foreign Relations. Perhaps the most famous example is the debt incurred by Montreal in the 1976 Olympics.
Many recent games have faced criticisms around their size and their impact on cities.
In her new book, Bringing the Olympics Back to Los Angeles: A History of the Southern California Committee for the Olympic Games, 1984-2014, Owens contrasts the challenges of the Montreal Olympics to the successful 1984 Games in Los Angeles.
“Following the great success of the 1984 Games, the IOC had a surfeit of bidders to choose among for every subsequent Olympiad until public enthusiasm again flagged in the bidding for the 2022 Winter Games and 2024 Olympic Games,” Owens writes. “With another athletic and financial success in 2028 in Los Angeles, the IOC might again find itself with a surplus of bid cities in the ensuing decades.”
In Tokyo, the tension isn’t just around finances. The mostly unvaccinated Japanese public has been firmly against the Games going forward.
“The Japanese public has made plain an eminently reasonable concern about whether holding an Olympics here, now, is prudent. That’s why the government has ruled there won’t be any fans in the stands,” said Alan Abrahamson, an associate professor of professional practice at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism and award-winning sportswriter who has reported on 11 Olympic Games throughout his career. “That’s going to be straight-up weird.”
Who will watch the Tokyo Olympics, and why?
And maybe not just weird, but a “ratings disaster.”
That’s the prediction of Daniel Durbin, a professor of communication and director of the USC Annenberg Institute of Sports, Media and Society.
“Olympics broadcasts have been strikingly consistent over the last 60 and more years. This year breaks that streak,” he said.
“The Olympics have long sold themselves on being a global event. The venue audience, jammed together, holding up flags from their various countries, is an important part of creating the image of a global celebration,” he continued. “Empty stands reduce this to athletes alone on a field; no sense of moment, no epic global sports struggle. Barring a compelling sports story arising from the competition, this could be a ratings disaster.”
Skateboarders remain one of the most accessible, tenacious and culturally rich communities to grace the Olympic stage.
Several sports will make their official Olympic debuts this year, which could broaden its appeal, said Neftalie Williams, a Provost’s Postdoctoral Scholar at USC Annenberg. He is the first professor of skateboarding business, media and culture in the U.S. and looks at how skateboarding can be used as a tool for cultural diplomacy.
“Skateboarding and action sports’ Olympic debut will resonate with millions of young people across the globe,” he said. “Despite being marginalized in the sporting sphere and often stereotyped in popular culture, skateboarding and skateboarders remain one of the most accessible, tenacious and culturally rich communities to grace the Olympic stage.”
In addition, Abrahamson noted that there is one overarching theme of the Olympics that could still make the broadcast compelling to viewers.
“What the pandemic has proven, unequivocally, is that all of us on Planet Earth, no matter where we are from, no matter what we look like or what languages we speak — each and every one of us not only wants but needs hopes and dreams,” he said. “And, as well, one-to-one contact with each other to affirm that, in the end, we are more alike than we are different. That’s what the Olympics are all about.”