The opening ceremonies ringing in the Tokyo Olympics on Friday will look familiar: There’s the distinctive five-rings logo, the traditional torch-lighting and the procession of athletes marching in under their flags.
But make no mistake, these pandemic-delayed Games will be unlike any that have come before — from events staged in arenas emptied by virus concerns to athletes openly using the global platform to broadcast social and political messages.
The International Olympic Committee is adamant that holding the Games in virus-stricken Tokyo can be done safely, but the host country’s top Olympics official warned just Tuesday that, with coronavirus cases in the city hitting six-month highs, the entire two-week long event could still be canceled.
Beyond the COVID-19 concerns and the official embrace of athlete activism, there are controversies galore, from the inclusion of Laurel Hubbard, the first transgender athlete in Olympics history, who will compete in women’s weightlifting, to the Russian team competing under doping violation sanctions to the specter of the Beijing Winter Olympics following in just six months in a country with an increasingly contentious relationship with the U.S. and much of the West.
“From [the IOC’s] point of view, having the Olympics — albeit flawed — is better than not having an Olympics,” said Mark Conrad, the director of the sports business program at Fordham University’s Gabelli School of Business. “They do want to hold the Games, almost to hell or high water. Almost to that point.”
The Games will bring almost 11,000 athletes to Japan, many of whom have ties to the Washington, D.C., area. In the pool, Katie Ledecky and Torri Huske open their Olympic slates this weekend on NBC’s family of networks. Troy Isley, a boxer who graduated from Alexandria City High School, competes next week. Kyle Snyder, from Woodbine, Maryland, will wrestle in early August.
The first events of the Olympics actually began Wednesday, with softball and women’s soccer games. The Games will continue through Aug. 8, when the men’s and women’s basketball gold medal games are held and the closing ceremony is held.
But there’s much to be done before then, with the coronavirus at the center of just about everything.
Early warning signs cropped up when the first coronavirus cases were discovered within the Olympic village on Monday, with three members of the South African men’s soccer team testing positive. Those cases set off isolation attempts and contact tracing efforts ahead of Thursday’s opener against Japan.
There’s been a steady drip of athletes withdrawing due to positive tests in the build-up to this week.
After an alternate for the U.S. women’s gymnastics team tested positive for the coronavirus, the team departed the Olympic Village to stay in a hotel instead. Coach Cecile Landi wrote on Twitter that “we feel like we can control the athletes and our safety better in a hotel setting!”
There have been at least 67 positive cases among those involved with the Olympics, including athletes and officials.
“I’m always concerned when I see people who are infected, because it could be the tip of an iceberg,” said Dr. Lisa Brosseau, a research consultant at the Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy within the University of Minnesota. “The word I’ve been using all throughout the pandemic is ‘magical thinking.’ There is so much magical thinking, and the IOC is illustrating it for us perfectly.”
Some sports leagues have proven it’s possible to continue during the pandemic. The NBA and WNBA utilized bubble formats early in the pandemic to complete the 2020 playoffs before returning to a more natural setting this season. The NFL completed a season with fewer fans in the seats.
But those sports were more manageable, with far fewer athletes involved, than the massive Olympics. And the bubble format the NBA and WNBA used — with near-lockdown conditions — aren’t being used in Tokyo, with athletes sharing rooms, for instance.
“As much as the IOC says they have a bubble going, that isn’t happening,” Dr. Brosseau said. “You can’t make a bubble over the Olympic village. That just isn’t possible. Bubbles have to be much smaller than that.”
Dr. Brosseau said she’s alarmed at the naivety the IOC has shown while preparing to hold the Olympics during a pandemic. She pointed to the different risk levels between indoor and outdoor sports, yet the IOC hasn’t adapted different measures for each. The IOC has fallen short on planning to prevent aerosol inhalation of the virus, opting instead to count on face coverings, plexiglass barriers and opening windows every 30 minutes.
The IOC has staked much of the Games on daily testing practices, hoping to discover positive cases early. When there are positive cases, athletes will be sent to one of 300 isolated hotel rooms — but that draws skepticism, too.
“We are magically imagining we’re only going to get 300 people who are going to have to get quarantined or isolated, we’re magically imagining that all of these things that we’ve done are somehow going to prevent transmission in the Olympic Village,” Dr. Brosseau said. “Not so sure any of that’s going to happen.”
With much of the Japanese public disapproving of holding the Games while cases rise, several Japanese companies are distancing themselves from the Olympics. Toyota has pulled advertisements on TV in Japan, and Panasonic, Toyota and Asahi will skip Friday’s opening ceremony.
“People there are just simply not happy,” Mr. Conrad said, “and it doesn’t look good for brands that sell well in Japan — obviously, Japanese companies — to associate themselves with this event that they paid good money to sponsor.”
While the coronavirus hangs over proceedings, there are other factors at play beyond the athletic competition. In early July, the IOC altered rules against athlete expression, deviating from the previous standard aimed at maintaining political neutrality at the Games.
The new guidelines permit some forms of political expression, allowing athletes to demonstrate before their events begin, so long as the message isn’t disruptive. Demonstrating on the medal podium, in the Olympic Village or during the opening and closing ceremonies still isn’t approved.
The first of such protests was seen Wednesday as multiple women’s soccer teams, including the U.S., New Zealand and Great Britain, took a knee on the field before their matches. The move has become a staple for soccer across the world — from the Premier League to European Championship — to protest racial injustice. The U.S. team stood for the national anthem.
“It’s an opportunity for us to continue to use our voices and use our platforms to talk about the things that affect all of us intimately in different ways,” U.S. captain Megan Rapinoe said after Sweden ran away with a 3-0 win to open the Olympic group stages.
“We’re on the global stage,” Rapinoe added, “with the world’s media, and eyeballs and people’s attention, all drawn to one place with a collection of incredible athletes from all over the world, who care a lot about what they’re doing here in Tokyo in terms of their sport, and who care a lot about a lot of other things.”
Other protests could be expected throughout the Games. Gwen Berry, an American hammer thrower, turned away from the flag when the national anthem played during the medal ceremony last month at the U.S. track and field Olympic trials. Noah Lyles, a sprinter, raised a gloved hand before his race at the trials, too.
The IOC has also drawn criticism for allowing Hubbard, a transgender woman from New Zealand, to compete. Belgian weightlifter Anna Vanbellinghen told Inside the Games that Hubbard’s inclusion is “like a bad joke.”
But Hubbard has received support, too. Emily Campbell, a British weightlifter who will compete against Hubbard, told the Independent last month that Hubbard “has qualified for this competition fairly like everyone else has, following rules that we all have to abide by.”
And after the Tokyo Games were postponed for a year, the scheduling is being squeezed for the Beijing Winter Olympics in February 2022.
And the IOC is already hearing calls for a boycott of Beijing because of the host country’s human-rights abuses.
“First is the moral question,” Lhadon Tethong of the Tibet Action Institute told the Associated Press. “Is it OK to host an international goodwill sporting event such as the Olympic Games while the host nation is committing genocide just beyond the stands?”
That will ramp up more pressure on the IOC — and on the sponsors who help make the Olympics possible. But before the Olympics can look ahead to Beijing, there are two pressure-packed weeks to get through in Tokyo.
“At best, to sum up, the event could go on with minimal disruption — the actual event,” Mr. Conrad said. “At worst, for the Olympic Village, for the spread, for the society, it could be a [disaster].