Johnny Watterson: Can we really justify an unequal Olympics going ahead?

There is an ethical question athletes from Europe and the USA must ask

 Ukrainian health minister Maksym Stepanov speaks with Anna Ilina, a member of the Ukrainian Olympic shooting team as she receives a dose of Chinese-developed CoronaVac vaccine in Kiev. Photograph: Volodymyr Petrov

Ukrainian health minister Maksym Stepanov speaks with Anna Ilina, a member of the Ukrainian Olympic shooting team as she receives a dose of Chinese-developed CoronaVac vaccine in Kiev. Photograph: Volodymyr Petrov

 

The Olympic Games and IOC are rarely far from controversy. Rio had its fair share and from the polluted water and the doping scandals to the US swimmer and six-time gold medal winner, Ryan Lochte, fabricating a story of being robbed at gun point, 2016 was a cash cow for the ethics boffins.

Tokyo is shaping up the same way as organisers say it will cost $15 billion to stage this year’s Games, spiralling up from $12.6 billion last year.

The added $2.28 billion is the cost of the one-year delay. However, audits by the Japanese government put the number closer to $25 billion, which is more than three times the original figure of $7.5 billion, when the Games were first awarded to the city in 2013.

What is the point of the Olympics if it is responsible for spreading infections? We will have to make a decision at that point

It is not difficult to see why both the IOC and the Japanese government are insisting the Olympics will proceed. But it’s not just the cost. The cherished commodity of national pride is at stake too.

Tokyo was the host city of the 1940 Games that were called off because of the second World War and from that ill-fated piece of timing, there has been added pressure not to become the first city in history to cancel the Olympics twice.

It has been complicated from the outset as the IOC has made it clear that while it supports the vaccination of athletes, it will not be mandatory for them to be vaccinated in order to participate.

They maintain that to insist on vaccination would be unfair to less developed countries, which do not have widespread access to the vaccines. To discriminate on that basis would, in their view, result in impoverished Games involving mainly wealthy, developed countries.

Indulging in its fetish for overblown language, Wednesday marked 100 days out from the Games, which the IOC believe are planned to be a celebration of “humanity, courage and resilience”. A statement then to the world, that we are better than the virus. No pressure Tokyo.

One question is whether it is right to push headlong into an event that will bring over 11,000 athletes and tens of thousands of officials and media from 200 different countries into one place.

Another is how organisers are going to protect vulnerable athletes from those same nations the IOC insist must be allowed to compete, the very countries that may not have adequate medical treatment if they do become infected and whose immune systems may struggle.

Black people are twice as likely as white people to catch the virus, Asians 1.5 times more likely. How would a European fare in an equatorial swamp without protection against malaria.

Up to five days ago, close to 100 per cent of Gibraltar’s population had been vaccinated, while countries such as Nicaragua were still waiting to receive their first doses, a situation the World Health Organization called a “farce”.

People walk past a banner with the logo of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games hanging from the wall of the Tokyo Metropolitan City Hall on Wednesday. Photograph: Kimimasa Mayama/EPA
People walk past a banner with the logo of the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games hanging from the wall of the Tokyo Metropolitan City Hall on Wednesday. Photograph: Kimimasa Mayama/EPA

On the global vaccine map there is a whole swath of African countries awaiting supplies, with 10 of them having received no doses of vaccine at all. The picture was similar in central Asia as well as in North Korea, which has withdrawn from the Olympics, Cuba and Bosnia & Herzegovina.

Madagascar, Eritrea and Burundi have governments in place that believe the virus can be fought by other means, while the EU and the USA have secured the large majority of vaccines.

It is to this backdrop the IOC is insisting that vaccination is not a prerequisite to compete.

However, individuals still have personal choice and can decide whether it is the right thing to do to ask an African athlete to go into a boxing ring against an Asian athlete, neither of whom has been vaccinated.

If either becomes infected, who is going to protect them and provide them with the adequate resources for recovery and what happens if symptoms arise after they leave Tokyo. Whose responsibility do they become?

In London boxing attempted to organise an Olympic qualifying tournament last year before being forced to abandon it after a few days. By then six people, from Croatia and Turkey, had become infected.

Japan is currently dealing with both a rise in infections as well as a surge in the UK variant and is now heading into a fourth wave of the pandemic with less than one per cent of the 126 million population having received a vaccine.

Toshihiro Nikai, the number two in Japan’s ruling Liberal Democratic Party, has opened the door to the Olympics being cancelled or postponed again if cases continue to rise.

“What is the point of the Olympics if it is responsible for spreading infections,” he asked. “We will have to make a decision at that point.”

Sustaining safe sport for any duration is a difficult and fragile enterprise. The recent Six Nations, a rugby competition played among a handful of ‘bubble-wrapped’ European teams and the European Champions Cup, demonstrated that.

The view of most athletes is likely to be that if the IOC and city of Tokyo stage the Olympics, then it is probably safe to participate. Essentially it is removing any decision-making from the athlete.

The Olympic Games are always unequal. But perhaps the ethical question athletes from Europe and the USA must ask is whether travelling to Tokyo this summer is equally safe for more vulnerable opponents.

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