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Malaysian athletes and officials receive their Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine on April 13, 2021.
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Tokyo’s Olympic Village will be very vaccinated

The IOC estimates that well above 80 percent of athletes will have their shots. But with unequal vaccination access globally, the preparations are raising yet another debate.

Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Some 15,000 Olympians and Paralympians from more than 200 countries, along with thousands of coaches and support staff, are heading to Japan for the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games, which kick off in July.

And it’s looking like the games will be a pretty vaccinated place, according to the International Olympic Committee (IOC).

In a statement to Vox, an IOC spokesperson said that “well above” 80 percent of residents of the Olympic and Paralympic Village in Tokyo will be vaccinated, and somewhere between 70 and 80 percent of the media.

Yet those figures are a reminder of the risks and realities of holding an Olympics when a pandemic is very much still raging and vaccine access is so severely limited in many parts of the world.

Brazilian athlete and swimmer Larissa de Oliveira receives the first dose of the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine in Rio de Janeiro on May 14, 2021.
Wagner Meier/Getty Images

Only about 22 percent of the globe’s population has received their first shot, the vast majority in higher-income countries. Japan’s vaccination campaign, after a sluggish start, is now inoculating about 1 million people a day. But that won’t be even close enough to get everyone under 65 jabbed by the time the Olympic ceremonies start in late July.

Given the scale of the vaccination need globally and the world’s race against the clock to stave off new variants, the effort invested in the Olympics can seem a bit misplaced. Then again, despite calls for the games to be canceled, the Olympics are going ahead, and vaccination is the best tool available to reduce the Covid-19 risks for participants, staff, and volunteers, and the people in Japan.

Which is why it makes sense to make sure everyone going to the Tokyo Olympics has their shot at, well, a shot.

What’s at stake in Tokyo

A lot is riding on the Tokyo Games.

They’re already the most expensive Olympic Games on record at more than $25 billion, with a couple extra billion added on due to the one-year pandemic delay. Business and media interests have huge stakes in these games going ahead as planned. Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide’s ability to successfully host the Olympics is seen as a political test of his handling of the pandemic. And this is really the last chance to host the 2020 Games: There will be no postponing them another year.

For all of these reasons, the Japanese government and the IOC are heavily invested in making sure the games happen, and they’ve promised the games will be “safe and secure.”

Foreign fans are banned from attending, but officials on Monday said local spectators will be allowed, with venues limited to 50 percent capacity, or up to 10,000 fans — all of whom must follow Covid-19 protocols including mask-wearing and, somehow, no loud cheering. The decision to let fans attend may change if Japan sees another coronavirus spike, although cases have declined since a peak in May.

Athletes and other participants must also follow strict protocols — mask-wearing, social distancing, avoiding public transportation — as officials attempt to create a version of a “bubble.” Athletes will have to detail their daily activities and get tested regularly (including follow-up testing in case of false positives). Breaking these rules could potentially lead to disqualification or deportation, much in the same way a positive Covid-19 test might.

People walk in the street in Tokyo’s Shimbashi area on June 21, 2021, after Japan announced the lifting of the city’s virus state of emergency just over a month before the Olympics.
Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images
The National Stadium will be the main venue for the 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo.
Kazuhiro Nogi/AFP via Getty Images
Plastic shields are installed in gyms as a preventive measure against infections inside the Olympic and Paralympic Village in Tokyo.
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Protesters gather during a media tour of the Olympic and Paralympic Village in Tokyo on June 20, 2021.
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Yet many Japanese people and public health experts are still concerned that the games will become a “superspreader” event, with people bringing variants from all corners of the world or taking the virus with them when they leave. The risks are not just to the attendees, but to those in Tokyo and the rest of Japan, whose health care systems may be left dealing with a surge in the wake of the Olympics.

To further mitigate that risk — and save the games — the IOC in January launched an effort to work with the World Health Organization to get all Olympic athletes vaccinated in time, though they’re not going so far as to mandate vaccinations before the competitors arrive in Tokyo. As the Telegraph reported, part of that plan involved accelerating Covid-19 shots for athletes in countries that had yet to roll out their vaccination campaigns.

In May, the IOC announced an agreement with Pfizer/BioNTech to distribute vaccine doses to athletes and delegates from participating countries. In an emailed statement, Pfizer’s Keanna Ghazvini, a senior associate for global media relations, said Pfizer/BioNTech and the IOC have made “meaningful progress” and anticipate that “more than 20 countries, where the necessary regulatory and legal conditions exist, will commit to the vaccination program.” In addition, there are efforts “to establish central locations where delegations from countries where the Pfizer/BioNTech Covid-19 vaccine is not yet available can go to be vaccinated ahead of traveling to Japan.”

Tokyo officials have also begun to inoculate local staff and members of the media who will be covering the Olympics, with the goal of vaccinating about 2,500 people per day. Earlier in June, Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto said about 70,000 of Tokyo’s volunteers and staff would be able to start getting vaccinated, though thousands of volunteers have already quit over Covid-19 safety concerns. In a statement, the IOC said Japan had secured an additional 40,000 doses from Pfizer/BioNTech to vaccinate Olympic workers. Japan also started vaccinating its athletes at the beginning of June, with the goal of vaccinating 95 percent of the people on its teams.

Of course, athletes in places such as the United States can easily get a shot, though the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) didn’t require vaccinations for its delegation either. The USOPC, which did not return a request for comment, previously said it wouldn’t track vaccination rates among athletes. But in some sports, vaccination rates are quite high: USA Swimming, for example, said at least 90 percent of its team is vaccinated.

Elsewhere, some countries committed to vaccinating their Olympic athletes in the early days of their rollouts. Hungary began inoculating its Tokyo 2020 (and Beijing 2022) athletes in January. Israel, which launched one of the fastest vaccination campaigns in the world, promised all competitors would have a shot by May. Even Mexico, whose vaccine campaign has been less than stellar, still put Olympians among its priority groups. And as of early this month, India — which is emerging from a brutal coronavirus wave — said dozens of its Olympic athletes and other attendees had been fully vaccinated, with many more having received their first dose.

So is it all worth it?

If the IOC estimates are correct, it looks like vaccination rates among Olympic participants will be high.

That’s certainly a good thing for the Olympics — but zoom out, and the rest of the world is still very much dealing with the pandemic. Vaccine access around the world is deeply unequal, particularly when it comes to high-income versus low-income countries. About 85 percent of the world’s shots have gone to people in high- or upper-middle-income countries, compared to 0.3 percent of doses in low-income countries, according to the New York Times.

It can feel disjointed to devote all of these efforts to vaccinate Olympic athletes and their entourages just so the games can go on.

But barring something extraordinary, the Olympics are happening. And experts said it makes more sense to adapt to this reality and ensure they’re as safe as possible — and that means prioritizing vaccinations.

The International Olympic Committee, the International Paralympic Committee, and the Tokyo 2020 Organizing Committee hold a press briefing on February 17, 2021, to discuss their countermeasures against Covid-19.
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The countdown clock for the Tokyo Olympic Games is displayed on June 22, 2021, 30 days before the opening ceremony.
Charly Triballeau/AFP via Getty Images

Arthur Caplan, a professor of bioethics at New York University, said that, overall, the number of Olympic athletes and volunteers is relatively tiny when viewed on a global scale, and doesn’t amount to a huge diversion of vaccine supply. But there are going to be vulnerable people present in Tokyo, and that’s why he said all involved — from coaches to staff to food handlers — should get vaccinated immediately, especially as the time window for a two-dose regiment is about to close.

Maybe Olympic athletes don’t fit squarely into our definition of essential workers. But if we see the Olympics as having cultural and international significance — and surely someone does if we’re trying to pull them off in a pandemic — then investing equitably in all Olympians and attendees is the best option. It would be far more glaringly unequal if teams from the US or Europe showed up fully vaccinated while teams from Africa or Latin America did not.

“These athletes that come from poor countries are citizens of the world,” Caplan said. “And that’s what we’re promoting — world citizenship. And that’s why they’re getting vaccinated.”

I reached out to a few US Olympic and Paralympic athletes, and some athletes said getting the vaccine was the best way to protect themselves, and the best hope to compete in Tokyo. But some saw it in bigger terms, too — viewing it as their responsibility as both travelers and public figures.

“As a global citizen, it’s the best way that I can help to make the pandemic end sooner,” Kyra Condie, a climber who’ll be representing the US in Tokyo, told me via voice memo. High-profile Olympians getting vaccines and winning gold medals after they do so could also ease some vaccine hesitancy, especially among young and healthy people.

Inevitably, Covid-19 will still cause some disruptions to the games. Not all competitors will be vaccinated, and that includes some who are publicly skeptical and who also have a big platform. And as the New York Yankees could tell you, vaccines aren’t a perfect barrier against Covid-19, and they aren’t designed to be. Just this week, a member of the Ugandan Olympic team tested positive for Covid-19 after arriving in Japan. He, like the rest of his Olympic team, was fully vaccinated.

The pandemic isn’t over, and these strange, year-late Olympics will remind us of that. But they could also offer a bit of a break from it. As Tara Kirk Sell, a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security at the Bloomberg School of Public Health and an Olympic medalist, put it, the Olympics can be seen as a “beacon of hope.”

“I think that it shows us where we’re headed,” she said, “and how we can come together as a global community.”

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