clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Did the Covid-19 Olympics have to be a mess?

This year’s Olympics were always going to be a challenge. Now they’re a showcase for broader failures.

An empty folding chair in front of a ramp with the Tokyo 2020 Olympic rings on the slope. Noriko Hayashi/Bloomberg via Getty Images
Jen Kirby is a senior foreign and national security reporter at Vox, where she covers global instability.

Members of the Ugandan boxing team tested positive for Covid-19 after landing in Tokyo back in June. In early July, a Serbian rower did too. The weekend before the Games began, the first people in the Tokyo Olympic Village tested positive for Covid-19; first, two South African soccer players, then a Czech volleyball player.

American tennis player Coco Gauff had to drop out of her first Olympics because of a positive test, and an alternate gymnast for Team USA — though fully vaccinated — tested positive for Covid-19, and is now spending the Games in her hotel room, under quarantine. A US men’s beach volleyball player, testing positive, will likely be disqualified from a weekend match.

Since July 1, more than 75 people associated with the Olympics have gotten back positive Covid-19 results.

Then again, what do you expect when you host a mass sporting spectacle during a pandemic?

The International Olympic Committee postponed the 2020 Tokyo Summer Games last year as the coronavirus spread around the globe, shutting down international travel and leaving countries on strict lockdowns.

If the delay was intended to push the Olympics into a post-pandemic world, the opposite happened. The pandemic evolved, and is now in one of its most dangerous phases, fueled by variantsspecifically delta — and global inequity around vaccinations.

But the Olympics are still trying to be, well, the Olympics. Yes, there is a pandemic playbook, and safety protocols, like frequent testing. Yes, the stadiums will be largely empty of fans. Yes, there are vaccines, but the International Olympic Committee did not mandate them, though it worked to help teams access shots, saying about 80 to 85 percent of those in the Olympic Village would be vaccinated.

The Olympics were always going to be extraordinarily difficult to pull off in a pandemic, but some of the mess was foreseeable, and maybe even avoidable — though it might have meant pulling off a different sort of Olympics than the one we’re used to.

“It’s fingers crossed, hopeful, magical thinking — without really thinking about the risks, and what could they have done to lower those risks for everyone involved,” Lisa Brosseau, a public health expert and research consultant with the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP) at the University of Minnesota, who has written, along with her colleagues, on how the Olympics could have mitigated some of these Covid-19 risks.

So much of the debate focused on whether to cancel the Olympics altogether, something that was supposedly still a possibility in recent days. The course of the pandemic is beyond the control of the Olympic officials, of course, but the question is whether the planning or protocols around the Games should have changed, too. And now, with the Games already on, it is nearly impossible to change course.

Covid-19 disruptions are likely to be a defining feature of this 2020 Olympiad. It will not be a moment, as some hoped, of a world showing solidarity amid the toll and tragedy of the pandemic. Instead, it will be a showcase for just how far the world still has to go to defeat Covid-19 — and the very real risks of not facing up to that reality.

A 2020 Olympics for a 2021 pandemic

The pandemic is worse now than when the 2020 Games were first postponed. More than 191 million Covid-19 cases have been detected as of July 2021, and more than 4 million people have died, according to the World Health Organization. Japan, the Olympic host, is seeing another surge of Covid-19 cases, low compared to US levels but almost double the caseload around this time in 2020. Tokyo recorded more than 1,900 new cases on July 22 — a 155 percent increase from the previous week’s average.

The burden of the pandemic is now largely on unvaccinated people, split into two groups. The first is people who are reluctant to or refuse to get a shot, though it’s generally easily available to them, as in the United States. Then there’s the much larger group: the rest of the world, the majority of whom live in places were vaccines aren’t readily available. About 26 percent of the world’s population has received at least one dose of a Covid-19 vaccine, but just a little more than 1 percent of them are in low-income countries.

Still, even countries that sought to vaccinate their way out of the pandemic — Israel and the United States, for example — are seeing a troublesome uptick in cases. The delta variant is driving up cases everywhere; daily global coronavirus infections are up more than 40 percent compared to a month ago, according to the New York Times.

Though the vaccines largely protect against severe illness and death, the high numbers of still-unvaccinated people make it an imperfect firewall — one that could grow weaker if the virus continues to spread and continues to change.

Olympic officials, back in 2020, couldn’t have predicted these exact circumstances. Yet experts said that it became clear months ago that the existing protocols were going to be insufficient to fully prevent the spread of Covid-19 at the Olympics. And while the Olympic organizers made changes to their pandemic playbook on the margins, the commitment to a “safe and secure” Olympics wasn’t as agile or flexible as it might have been.

“This isn’t a pandemic of 2020, and so the Olympics can’t be, either,” said Peter Chin-Hong, an infectious disease expert at the University of California San Francisco. “The old rules don’t count anymore.”

For one, there’s a lot of “hygiene theater,” as Chin-Hong called it. These are things like temperature checks for athletes returning to the Olympic Village, though these have serious limitations, and things like restricted seating and plexiglass barriers in the dining room, which aren’t going to do much and may even give people a false sense of security.

Chin-Hong even suggested handing out N95 masks, or something more protective, for athletes as they interact with people, rather than just surgical or cloth masks. Experts have also raised concerns about the ventilation systems in the hotels, venues, and the Olympic Village. Updating those could do a lot more to protect athletes than, say, spacing those cardboard beds.

And then there’s the so-called Olympic bubble. Only athletes are permitted to stay in the Olympic Village, and they’re supposed to follow Covid-19 protocols, like wearing masks and social distancing. They’re not supposed to leave for a reason other than attending a competition, and they can face penalties if they break those rules.

But athletes aren’t required to stay in the Olympic Village; they could stay at hotels, for example. Also staying at hotels are media and coaches and support staff. All those people will be traveling to — and interacting with each other and with volunteers and staff — at events. In other words, the bubble very quickly bursts.

Daily saliva tests will help catch infections, but once someone has a positive Covid-19 test, it’s already too late — the call is coming from inside the house, so to speak.

“The issue with surveillance systems like that is that you are detecting exposure that already happened. And from there, you try to [pick] out whoever got exposed, potentially, and isolate those folks,” said Tomoko Udo, associate professor in the department of health policy, management, and behavior at the School of Public Health at University at Albany. “But once it’s in, and it starts to spread really fast, you can’t really do much. It’s catch-up.”

Tracking down close contacts could also get complicated. Tokyo organizers are having Olympic participants download a contract tracing app for mobile devices, except athletes probably don’t have their cellphones on them when they compete. And how those contacts are treated varies on a case-by-case basis, which is exactly the kind of thing that always goes well when you’re trying to maintain fair standards of competition.

With the Olympics starting now, officials can’t entirely change course. Olympic officials could try to tighten the bubble a little bit, they could hand out more effective masks, but these are improvements on the edges. As Chin-Hong said: “You can’t take the elephant out of the room.”

The Olympics are really all of us right now

The cracks in some of the Olympic Covid-19 protocols seem easy to spot now. The Games’ organizers, like everyone else, were betting on vaccines. That, as Brosseau said, is more Olympic “magical thinking.”

“It has always it’s been about ‘we’re going to get everybody vaccinated, it’s going to be fine,’” Brosseau said. “And we don’t need to really worry about these other things — all these other things are more for show really, the Plexiglas barriers and people bringing their face masks.”

It’s not just the Olympics. Entire countries engaged in this magical thinking, hoping to rely on herd immunity brought about by vaccines. But that strategy wasn’t ever really practical for the Olympics, either.

Most obviously, the IOC did not mandate vaccination to participate in the Olympics. The IOC made a deal with Pfizer/BioNTech to help countries get vaccines, and many countries prioritized the vaccination of athletes.

But experts said that even though the overall figure of 85 percent — provided by the IOC — seems quite high, it’s more complicated on closer inspection. Different countries might have different vaccines, which have different levels of effectiveness, and also have different guidelines on who can get the vaccine (say, people under 16, who can compete in the Olympics). The level of vaccination may vary for specific delegations or teams, and they may be coming from a place where, even if they’re vaccinated, Covid-19 cases are high. Some athletes were always going to refuse vaccination if it wasn’t required.

And so far that seems to be the case. According to the United States Olympic and Paralympic Committee medical chief, about 100 out of America’s 613 athletes are unvaccinated — and there is no question that shots were available to them. On top of that, Japan’s rate of vaccination is only about 23 percent, and most of those shots have gone to elderly people and health care workers. Japan planned to vaccinate its Olympic volunteers, but what of taxi drivers or hotel workers or others whom Olympic participants may come in contact with? Among those who have tested positive in recent days (though their vaccination status is unclear) were a volunteer, six contractors, and one Games staffer, according to Reuters.

Vaccines seemed like a safety net in pulling off the Olympics, but it’s clear that safety net was not enough if the goal was to stop any spread of the virus. In a way, the Olympics are a reflection of a broader dilemma at this stage of the Covid-19 pandemic. Vaccinations are astonishingly effective at preventing severe illness and death, and they are helping places get back to a version of normal. People are also tired and fatigued of additional restrictions, even as the virus is roaring back, or surging in places it never left. “You see this pressure and conflict and tension arise,” Udo said.

That same tension exists in the Olympics. Tokyo faces restrictions on business and restaurants, but athletes are coming from all around the world to the city. Covid-19 is sidelining athletes, and the leaderboards and gold medal tallies will have a permanent caveat.

Then again, it’s the Olympics, we’re doing it! We’ll watch world records being broken, and witness these incredible feats of human speed and agility, and it will look and feel to many of us watching from afar like the Olympics we’ve always known.

But it maybe shouldn’t have been the Olympics we’ve always known.

The protocols and vaccinations are important, and they will help create a barrier against Covid-19. But maybe the most effective way to minimize the risks at the Olympics might have turned the spectacle into something entirely different. Brosseau and her colleagues, for example, suggested potentially spacing out the Olympics over many weeks, with different sports competing at different times, to eliminate the number of people in Tokyo all at once.

Maybe different athletes or sports should have followed different protocols — whether they play indoors or outdoors, whether people play on teams or compete solo — rather than a one-size-fits-all approach.

“It’s not that perfect ‘everyone-is-together-enjoying-this-amazing-event,’” Brosseau said. “But it’s a pandemic, for goodness sake. It’s still the Olympics. But no — they really wanted to have the Olympics be as much as possible like it is.”

And maybe Olympic fans do, too. Except, a year and change into the pandemic, the one constant of the pandemic has been that no amount of magical thinking can will it away.