On New Year’s Day, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) released an unequivocally hopeful message about the Tokyo Paralympics.
“We will pull this off,” said Andrew Parsons, the IPC’s president. “We will organize an incredible Paralympic Games. The Tokyo Games will be different than previous editions. But that doesn’t mean they will be worse. It’s the other way around. I think it will be remembered forever in the history books.”
But at the same time Parsons’ message appeared, Japan was in the midst of a surge in COVID-19 cases. The infection and hospitalization rates remained very low by international standards—just 0.2 percent of Japanese citizens have been infected, far below the worldwide average of 1.1 percent—but the first week of 2021 was nevertheless the worst Japan has witnessed since the pandemic began. On January 8 the nation recorded an all-time high of 7,863 new COVID cases, more in a single day than the aggregate total for the first six months of 2020.
The city of Tokyo declared a state of emergency that day. Two days later, the Kyodo News reported that 80 percent of Japan’s citizens think the Games should be cancelled.
The Olympic Games are supposed to start on July 23, a little more than six months from today. The Paralympics are scheduled to begin 32 days later, on August 24. Are they really going to happen? Let’s sift through some tea leaves.
The COVID surge in Japan ranks high on this list, but it’s not the only troubling trend. Nearly 20 international competitions that were scheduled for the first three months of 2021 have now been postponed or cancelled. They include Olympic and Paralympic qualifying events that are essential to planning and coordination of the Games themselves. The longer they’re delayed, the more difficult it will be to stage the Paralympics.
With the competition slate wiped nearly clean for the entire first quarter of 2021, national teams won’t find out which of their athletes and teams are competing in Tokyo until just a few months before the Opening Ceremony—which, in turn, will make it impossible to train and coach on anything even remotely resembling a normal basis. Instead of having months of focused preparation for their events, participants will have mere weeks, if that.
Even for the handful of competitions that remain on the calendar, constantly shifting travel restrictions may make it inconvenient for athletes to get to and from the events, leaving some competitors at a disadvantage. For example, the first meet in the 2021 World Para Athletics Grand Prix series is still scheduled for February 10 through 13 in Dubai. But if your home nation has a two-week quarantine rule in place for international travel, you’d have to suspend your training for two weeks upon returning from Dubai. Meanwhile, athletes from nations with laxer travel requirements could continue to train, thereby gaining an edge.
And all bets are off if there’s an outbreak within a national team, or among multiple teams. That could wreak havoc to the schedule at the last minute, leaving little or no time to adjust. We saw this throughout the NFL and college football seasons, with games being abruptly cancelled and teams being forced to play without key players or coaches. So far, the IPC has announced no contingencies plans for how such an occurrence would be managed.
Reasons for optimism
Every official body has pushed back hard against the Kyodo News poll, issuing unwavering declarations that the Games will go on. The chair of the Tokyo 2020 committee, former Japanese prime minister Yoshiro Mori, said yesterday: “We have to proceed as planned. There is no other way to respond.” The influential European Olympic Committees executive body gave similar assurances two days ago, with president Niels Nygaard stating: “I am quite confident that when we reach July we will be in a better situation and we will be able to have the Olympic [and Paralympic] Games.”
The number-one reason to believe these leaders is pretty simple: It will cost too much money to call the Games off. The International Olympic Committee (IOC) derives 90 percent of its revenues from international broadcast rights and sponsorship agreements, which collectively total many billions of dollars. Cancelling the Games would leave the IOC’s finances in a shambles, jeopardizing the entire Olympic and Paralympic concept. Likewise, the sponsors and broadcasters stand to lose the massive investments they’ve made in the Olympics and Paralympics. And no matter what the average Japanese citizen thinks, money talks—and cancellation would cost the Japanese government and business community dearly. Too many influential organizations have too much at stake to call the Games off, as long as viable scenarios remain for staging them safely.
Those scenarios became much more realistic with the development of vaccines. The time and resources exist to vaccinate every athlete before the Games, along with the coaches and support staff in each national team’s entourage. While the IOC hasn’t made any statement yet about vaccine mandates or protocols, those policies are being hammered out. Any system will need buy-in from the Japanese government, the Tokyo planning committee, the national teams, and the individual athletes themselves. But if agreements can be reached within the next 90 days or so, it’s realistic to believe that COVID risk to the participants can be virtually eliminated.
Eliminating COVID risk to the host country and its citizens will prove trickier. Even if every visitor who enters Japan has been vaccinated, they may still be capable of carrying the virus into the country and helping it spread; there’s not enough data available yet to know what effect vaccinated persons have on community spread. So it will probably be necessary to quarantine everyone in “bubbles” like the ones used so effectively last summer by the National Hockey League and the National Basketball Association. Given the success of the NHL and NBA bubbles, there’s every reason to think the model can be adapted for the Olympics and Paralympics. But with so many teams arriving from so many nations, and competition venues scattered across so many cities, dozens of separate bubbles will be required—and Japanese citizens are understandably concerned that one or more bubbles won’t remain under tight seal. If the Games end up causing thousands of ordinary Japanese citizens to get sick, the international blowback will be fierce, and the long-term consequences for the Olympics and Paralympics could be dire.
In the end, there’s potentially catastrophic risk either way. For IPC president Andrew Parsons, these difficulties are all the more reason to forge ahead. Staging the Games will require all parties to exhibit the perseverance, flexibility, and sheer guts that are displayed by every adaptive athlete at every level. Those qualities are what make the Paralympics so compelling. So if the Games go on, Parsons will be right: These Paralympics truly will be ones for the history books.