Morality of holding the Olympic Games now seriously open to question

Worldwide battle to contain coronavirus means organisers have a huge call to make

Visitors wearing masks take photos near the Olympic rings in Tokyo. The coronavirus outbreak has forced several major events to be cancelled in Japan, which could see the 2020 Summer Olympic Games postponed until later in the year. Photograph: Christopher Jue/EPA

Visitors wearing masks take photos near the Olympic rings in Tokyo. The coronavirus outbreak has forced several major events to be cancelled in Japan, which could see the 2020 Summer Olympic Games postponed until later in the year. Photograph: Christopher Jue/EPA

 

As of Friday lunchtime, all underage Gaelic games in Co Clare have been cancelled in response to the arrival of the coronavirus. But, as things stand, the Olympic Games in Tokyo will go ahead.

Among the images going viral over the last 48 hours was the face-mask somebody in Listowel put on the bronze statue of the playwright John B. Keane. In Ireland, the most natural response to the threat of a global health pandemic is laughter. It’s the old black logic. If we are laughing about it, then how bad can it really be?

Scan the news sites for information about what is likely to happen with this thing and you’re immediately hit with the disconcerting notion of humanity kind of grappling around in the dark.

Nobody knows for sure how bad things could get, including the actual experts who in dire times are called to reassure the public when the bland assurances offered by the politicians have become unbearable.

So the WHO offers guarded, cautious upgrades of the concern as the contagion spread and meanwhile, in most countries, life goes on as normal with the normal quotidian worries and laughter and conversations about whether Liverpool might have actually lost their bottle or whether they might be about to give Manchester United fans the biggest laugh of their lives.

Not a matter of life or death, Bill Shankly famously said of football during an age when sport in general held a more modest and sensible role in the day-to-day functioning of life.

Little wonder then then Jurgen Klopp, the trippy German who has managed to revive something of the old Shankly hauteur around Anfield, was rattled when he was asked his opinion about the virus during the week.

“It’s not important what famous people say,” he cautioned during an unusually irritated pronouncement during which he kept the perma-smile firmly hidden. “I live on planet Earth and I want the planet to be safe.”

Klopp is such a compelling communicator that the clip soon went viral. And it was interpreted by some as manipulative on the German’s part: a vindictive response to what was a reasonable question by the journalist who had asked a perfectly valid question about the precautions Klopp and the team may have taken.

It’s more probable, though, that Klopp, having watched his previously unbeatable team lose three of its last four games, has been trying to eliminate from his list of things that could monumentally derail his team’s push for an historic league title the spectre of a global pandemic.

He doesn’t want to think about the notion of the cancellation of the Premier League. What he was saying is: he’s just a football guy with, as he put it, “a base cap and a bad shave”.

Obscene expense

He might have Pep Guardiola’s number when it comes to manipulating the movement of 11 elite football players on a patch of grass but he doesn’t know jack about what is best for the welfare of the world facing a new health crisis.

He probably doesn’t want to entertain the idea of trying to win those last four necessary games behind closed doors, Anfield echoing and ghostly and silent. After all what is Liverpool football club or any team without its people, without its fans? What is any sport without the crowd?

“The Olympic Games are a quadrennial celebration of the springtime of humanity” declared Pierre de Coubertin when the revived modern Olympics were still blazing with new idealism and wedded to Corinthian spirit. One hundred years on, the Olympics are a more complex and compromised proposition. At best they are a magnificent folly: a grand scale global entertainment.

At worst they are an obscene expense and a parody of what de Coubertin originally dreamed. Whether you love, hate or are indifferent to the Olympics, there is no denying they’ve been long been hijacked by the superpowers as a stage on which to demonstrate national strength and health and virility. The honour and pleasure of hosting the Games have saddled several nations with absurd debts.

During the Rugby World Cup last autumn, the advertisements and marketing anticipating Tokyo 2020 were visible everywhere. It was easy to imagine that city comfortably absorbing the bedlam of the Olympic fortnight in a normal year. The city was roaring, it had the infrastructure and the main stadium stood ready and waiting. There would be none of the attendant panic and doubt and stress which beleaguered the countdown to Athens or to Rio.

In the subways of Tokyo, thousands of the citizens wear face masks as naturally as they wear shoes; they are part of the everyday dress wear. The trains are a stark contradiction to the etiquette and politesse which govern everyday life in Tokyo. It’s almost impossible to articulate how bizarrely crowded they become during the peak hours.

The crowds of visitors attending the rugby games in the city didn’t really make a difference; if you travel in trains at certain times people were guaranteed to find themselves wedged against complete strangers in a kind of choreographed crush. For that kind of crowd control to work requires a degree of tolerance that it’s hard to imagine working on the underground transport systems of western Europe or the US without fights breaking out,

But it is impossible to imagine those everyday scenes in the Tokyo train carriages if the worst fears of the coronavirus come to pass. Governments and health departments may be better prepared to cope with this threat but already the repeated underlying warnings about vital health services becoming quickly overwhelmed are far from reassuring.

The prospect of a temporary breakdown – or at least suspension – of normally functioning society has been flagged as an imminent possibility. When the BBC is running an interview in which the British health secretary is vowing that the supermarkets won’t run out of food, then it’s clear that society is on the verge of a very strange and frightening time.

Deeply reluctant

Perhaps that is also why Klopp sounded so frayed in his interview. He’s a rounded person and maybe deep in his subconscious he knows that around the corner, before the normal Premier League season plays itself out, may well await a human tragedy that will render all sport and titles irrelevant.

And that needs to come into the equation of the organisers of the Tokyo Olympics over the coming weeks. Seiko Hashimoto, the minister in charge, is adamant that the Games can go ahead.

It is easy to understand why the organisers and the nation would be so deeply reluctant to call off the Olympics. The IOC has the right to cancel the Games if “the safety of participants in the Games would be seriously threatened or jeopardized for any reason whatsoever”. But if the coronavirus takes hold as it threatens to do, what fans will actually want to travel to Tokyo to see what is supposed to be a celebration of the best of life?

And is there a point of holding races in an empty stadium? Already, there is a rolling counter on the number of deaths the virus has climbed. If that number has climbed into the realm of terrible numbers by the time the Olympics are due to begin in July, it may still be technically and logistically possible for Tokyo to host the games. But will it be morally right? That seems certain to become a more relevant question for Tokyo as the powers that be face a hugely difficult decision in the weeks ahead.

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