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Tokyo Olympic Games: When are they and how will Covid affect them?

The Olympic Games are considered to be the world’s most prestigious sports competition, with more than 200 nations participating. However, this year’s Olympic Games, which are being hosted by Japan, are facing complications due to the global Covid-19 pandemic.

In late July, approximately 11,000 athletes and 4,000 athletic support staff will gather for more than two weeks of competition at various hosting cities. Another 5,000 athletes will attend the Paralympics, which follows shortly after. According to the Tokyo 2020 Playbooks, which were developed by the International Olympic Committee (IOC), the International Paralympic Committee and the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee to ensure that all participants and spectators remain safe and healthy during the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, both spectators and athletes should take responsibilities to supply their own face coverings and are advised to be vaccinated against Covid-19 before the Games begin.

The 2020 Summer Olympic Games take place between 23 July and 8 August. The Paralympic Games are due to run between 24 August and 5 September. The Games were postponed last year because of Covid. The Olympics will feature 33 sports at 339 events across 42 venues. The Paralympics will feature 22 sports at 539 events across 21 venues.

Various concerns have been raised over hosting the Olympics, as the prestigious event only occurs once every four years. One of these concerns is that the Olympics could lead to the spread of more contagious Covid-19 variants, particularly as the event brings large numbers of athletes, media outlets, domestic spectators, local volunteers and officials together in one place. Many guidelines and policies are being put into place to mitigate this risk, including advising support staff and athletes to avoid public transport, tourist attractions, restaurants and bars to avoid chances of catching or spreading the airborne disease. Although the IOC has warned that non-compliance with the guidelines could lead to individuals being disqualified from competing, there is no real indication of how these countermeasures will be enforced

Some of you might wondering what’s happening with Covid in Japan? Here is some brief information on Japan’s COVID-19 situation. Japan has had relatively low case numbers, but a new wave of infections began in April. As of 21 July, there were 848,222 confirmed cases and 15,062 deaths (compared with 5.5 million cases and 128,800 deaths in the UK). Japan only began vaccinating in February and only 22% of its population of about 126 million is fully vaccinated. In Tokyo and Osaka, the two cities hit hardest by the recent surge, authorities hope over-65s will be fully vaccinated by the end of July.

Japan’s vaccination rate has been relatively slow and is adding to concerns about the possible spread of Covid-19. According to reports from Our World in Data, 26.4 million doses were administrated and around 7.11 million people have been fully vaccinated in Japan.

However, for Japan’s 125.36 million inhabitants, this equates to just over 5% of its total population being fully vaccinated. Medical workers and those ages 65 years and older were prioritised to receive vaccines and vaccinations for those under 65 years of age will start in the next few weeks, which means that only a small proportion of the population will be fully vaccinated if the Olympic Games continue as scheduled. As such, Global Data expects that Japan will see increased daily case numbers and a further strain on the country’s healthcare system after the Games have ended.

Now, let’s talk about the safety measure of COVID-19 for the athletes, international athletes and support staff are being tested every day. Athletes don’t have to be vaccinated, though International Olympic Committee (IOC) officials expect around 80% will be. More than 90 people associated with the Games have tested positive so far, including British athlete Amber Hill who has withdrawn from the women’s skeet competition.

Athletes and media are also asked to take Olympic-only transport, which consists of buses or designated taxis that can be reserved and have been (supposedly) cleaned and cleared. Yet again, given Tokyo’s low vaccination rate, the drivers of these buses aren’t likely to be vaccinated, and return home to their families after their shifts. And in the case of Olympic buses, during those shifts, they are driving consistently packed, standing-room only, cheek to jowl rides during which it’s impossible to impose the social distancing that’s ideally required to contain COVID-19.

After hearing the information about the athletes, you might be sure that you will be really safe to fly to Japan for being spectators for your country’s athletes, but unfortunately Japan decided to make rule that all spectators were banned after a state of emergency was declared in Tokyo on 8 July. It will stay in place until 22 August.

A decision about whether Japanese spectators will be able to attend the Paralympics has not yet been made. Tokyo 2020 President Seiko Hashimoto said she was “sorry to those who purchased tickets”. If there are no spectators why were the games not cancelled? The contract between the IOC and the host city Tokyo suggests only the IOC can cancel the event. The IOC is thought to make around 70% of its money from broadcast rights, and 18% from sponsorship. IOC president Thomas Bach said the thought of rescheduling the competition “caused sleepless nights”. He insisted the Games must go ahead “to give hope” for the future. The head of the World Health Organization, Dr Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus, also backed the competition, arguing it could show what can be done with the correct Covid safeguards.

But the head of the Tokyo 2020 organising committee Toshiro Muto has not ruled out cancelling the Olympic Games even at this late stage. He said he would keep an eye on infection numbers and hold “discussions” if necessary. If the Tokyo organisers were to cancel the contract, the risks and losses would probably fall on the Japanese side. The budget for Tokyo 2020 was set at $12.6bn (£8.9bn), although it’s been reported the actual cost may be double that. Same goes for the security measures at each of the venues and the main press and broadcasting centres, which require media and athletes to take off their masks and have their picture snapped at the same time that their credential, hung around their neck, is scanned by a standing kiosk machine.

Because most journalists aren’t bothering to remove their credential, that means that the space in front of the camera becomes another cloud of happy respiratory droplets containing all manner of bacteria or viruses that are floating around ready to get pulled into the lungs of a new host with the next inhalation. Athletes entering the Main Press Centre for press conferences are subject to the same procedures, even if they’re being asked to hang their own medals around their necks for fear of coming into close contact with medal presenters

Do people in Japan actually want the Olympics? Several towns set to host athletes reportedly pulled out earlier in the year because of fears about Covid and extra pressure on the healthcare system. In May, a Japanese doctors’ union said it was “impossible” to hold the Games given the pandemic. A poll in May in the leading Asahi Shimbun newspaper suggested more than 80% of the population want them cancelled or postponed. What have athletes’ representatives said? A number of bodies have expressed concern. The World Players Association, representing 85,000 athletes in over 60 countries, said the IOC must do more to ensure athletes’ safety – with stricter physical distancing and more rigorous testing. Japanese athletes have largely kept a low profile, but the country’s biggest sports star, tennis champion Naomi Osaka, previously said there should be a debate about whether the Games should go ahead.

The Tokyo Olympics infection control measures are pretty strict about preventing the importation of COVID-19 by Olympic travellers. But given that the bubbles aren’t perfect, and that the practical pressure to move thousands of journalists around in a short period of time precludes the proper social distancing, the virus is likely finding ways to keep flourishing. Health officials can only hope that intensive testing and contact tracing will pick up cases as quickly as possible to contain them.