Although this summer’s Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics were postponed by about a year due to the new coronavirus pandemic, the lingering question is whether the global health crisis will be under control by then.
The capital is facing a mounting challenge following the first Olympic postponement in history, with local organizers confronted with the task of reworking the preparations of the last six years.
The International Olympic Committee and the local organizers agreed Monday that the Tokyo Olympics, originally set to open on July 24 this year, will run between July 23 and Aug. 8, 2021, followed by the Paralympics from Aug. 24 to Sept. 5.
The IOC has stressed the importance of holding the Tokyo Games in 2021, with President Thomas Bach saying the sporting event can be a “celebration of humankind after having overcome the unprecedented challenge of the coronavirus.”
However, even as the organizers try to settle one problem after another, ranging from securing venues and lodging for athletes and officials, gathering volunteers and figuring out how to shoulder the additional costs, the key to hosting a successful Tokyo Games is something they cannot control by themselves.
Yoshiro Mori, president of the Tokyo Organising Committee, said at a press conference shortly after the agreement was reached that the virus is their “top concern” but that he expects the situation will change due to medical advancements.
Kazuhiro Tateda, who heads the Japanese Association for Infectious Diseases, says whether infections of COVID-19, the respiratory disease caused by the new coronavirus, could be drastically curtailed by next summer is still unknown, but predicts the pace of the spread will decelerate.
“The new coronavirus has been spreading at a very rapid pace,” Tateda said. “In the next few months, the virus will spread in both the northern and southern hemispheres. If those people who recovered become immune to the virus, we can say that the outbreak will settle down.”
“But we can’t tell what the situation is like in a year,” he said.
Speaking at the press conference with Mori, the organizing committee’s CEO, Toshiro Muto, said a one-year postponement was a “reasonable” decision at a time when no health experts can say for sure when the pandemic will end.
“If I’m asked whether the coronavirus (situation) settles in the summer of next year, I can’t say that it will be absolutely fine,” Muto said. “But if something like that happens, not only Japan but also the rest of the world will be in a devastating situation. I predict people to come up with new drugs if that’s the case.”
Tateda, a member of the government’s panel of experts, said the organizers made a “rational” choice, but they need to monitor the situation throughout their preparation period and make changes to the schedule if necessary.
Meanwhile, Koji Wada, a professor at the International University of Health and Welfare, says staging the Olympics next summer could be “difficult,” given that the pneumonia-causing virus has spread to all of the world’s seven continents except Antarctica since it broke out in China late last year.
“I think it’s a little too optimistic to assume that many people will become immune to the virus in one year and three months and be able to travel back and forth,” he said in a recent interview.
“Two years might have been better, but barely possible. Even then, there will be cases of infections around the world, and the games will have to go ahead under tough circumstances,” he said.
Wada said staging the Olympics and Paralympics will be different from any other event because a huge number of athletes and spectators from all over the world will gather, and the development of vaccinations and medications will be unlikely in a year.
“It is difficult to place countermeasures against infections to athletes,” he said. “What are they going to do with athletes who come from countries that still have cases of infection? People will suggest putting them under quarantine for about two weeks, but what would happen if that athlete tests positive?”
The European Union’s disease control body released a report on March 25 saying that the summer heat and humidity will be unlikely to prevent the virus from spreading, adding there is no evidence that COVID-19 displays a marked seasonality.
“The coronavirus is very difficult compared to other viruses because it spreads through people who do not show symptoms. And since none of us are immune to it, it can spread all over the world,” he said.