Must Olympic Games go on? Lack of transparency from organizers concerns experts, athletes

Thomas Bach, president of the International Olympic Committee, ticked through the crises the organization has faced in hosting recent Olympics, a laundry list of obstacles that hadn’t stopped the Games from going forward.

Nuclear tensions on the Korean peninsula before Pyeongchang two years ago.

The Zika virus before the Rio Olympics in 2016.

Boycotts and counter-boycotts in the 1980s.

“You need more?” he quipped, concluding a news conference on March 4 during which he fielded repeated questions about the IOC’s response to the novel coronavirus four months before the Tokyo Olympics.

But does Bach's answer do enough to quell concerns and instill confidence in the IOC's decision making?

The National Stadium in Tokyo is schedule to host the opening and closing ceremonies for the Olympics this summer. (Photo: Jae C. Hong, AP)

COVID-19 is unlike any other obstacle the IOC has faced, a global pandemic that has caused unprecedented interruptions to the world of sports – and the world at large. In the past week alone, sports leagues around the globe have suspended play, canceled championships or postponed events.

Meanwhile, the IOC lit the Olympic flame on Thursday to begin the torch relay, offering no more answers than the line it has repeated in recent weeks: The Tokyo Games will go as planned starting July 24.

The IOC's unwillingness to provide details about preparations and precautions being taken underscores the well-practiced opacity of one of the world’s largest sporting organizations. While this approach has worked in the past,public-health officials fear the IOC is adding to the risk, not mitigating it.

“(The IOC statements) just struck me as detached from reality, to be quite honest,” said J. Stephen Morrison, senior vice president at the Center for Strategic and International Studies and director of its Global Health Policy Center.

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Rather, the IOC could address what it does know now and lay out how it will revisit its plans later, Morrison said.

“They’ve got to speak to what’s going on, and they’re not alone in this. Everybody understands how excruciating these decisions are, and saying we’re going to be patient is OK. … But they need to be looking at the big picture pretty carefully because the big picture on both the public health and the economic side is unprecedented crises that are starting to emerge.”

Amid those crises, the IOC has already had to adjust. A day after the torch was lit in a ceremony closed to spectators, the Greek leg of the relay was canceled. Olympic qualifying events have been canceled, scaled down or moved in response to coronavirus concerns.

Yet at its executive board meeting last week, the IOC sought to tamp down speculation. Any talk of postponing or otherwise altering the Olympics has been met with a steadfast assertion that everything is full steam ahead.

The IOC declined to answer questions from USA TODAY about how it was changing preparations in light of the pandemic and how it might make a decision to postpone or cancel the Games.

“Neither the word cancellation nor the word postponement was even mentioned” during the IOC executive board meeting earlier this month, Bach said.

Japan’s Olympic minister, Seiko Hashimoto, on Friday said the IOC and the organizing committee are not considering cancellation or postponement.

Contrary to their public statements, the IOC and Tokyo organizers are preparing to adjust their plans, said former IOC member Richard Peterkin.

“My firm belief is that they are preparing for all eventualities, whether it’s plan A or plan B or plan C,” Peterkin said. “But typically, because of the IOC’s past of being almost sometimes a bit secretive and not all that communicative, it will take a while for people to trust and believe they are saying everything that has to be said.

“It seems they’re prepared for every eventuality, but publicly, they will put up a strong face and say it’s going to go ahead.”

Confusion in an information vacuum

Conflicting statements by IOC and Japanese officials have added to the confusion about the fate of the Games.

In an interview with the Associated Press last month, Dick Pound, the IOC's longest-serving member, suggested the IOC would have a two- or three-month window to decide whether the Games would go on, meaning a decision could come around the end of May. Hashimoto told parliament in Japan this month that the host city contract could be interpreted as allowing the Games to be postponed until later in the year.

Although there are concerns about coronavirus and the impact it could have on the Olympics this summer, IOC and Japanese officials say the Games are moving forward as scheduled. (Photo: Carl Court, Getty Images)

In the face of mounting questions, the IOC's executive board responded with a statement asserting its commitment to opening the Games as planned. It has reiterated there are ongoing discussions about the coronavirus with a joint task force that includes Tokyo organizers, government officials from Tokyo and Japan and the World Health Organization.

“Saying that the Olympics are going on no matter what is grossly irresponsible because they have no idea,” said Victor Matheson, an economist at Holy Cross who studies the Olympics. “The correct answer is, 'First and foremost, our concern is with the athletes and the spectators and we'll obviously be closely monitoring this as we go forward and we'll be looking at every possible alternative, but our every anticipation is that the Olympics will go on.' That's what they should be saying.”

A lack of information has increased athletes' concerns, said Han Xiao, chair of the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee’s athletes advisory council. While initial questions focused on qualifying events that have been postponed or canceled, Xiao said athletes are “getting more and more uneasy” because so little is known about COVID-19.

Athletes have received updates from the U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee, including resources from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

But Xiao said they have heard little from the IOC. A timeline of how and when the IOC will assess information and provide information would be helpful for athletes, Xiao said.

Instead, in a letter posted on the IOC’s athlete website, Bach wrote, “Please go ahead with ‘full steam.’ ”

That stance might help with insurers who would cover potential billions in losses in the event of a change. In any legal dispute to follow, the IOC’s public commitment to host the Games could bolster its claims.

Making a decision now could prove costly if the pandemic were to subside and be far less of a threat to the Games before they open. On top of that, the IOC and Tokyo organizers would be eager to assure spectators considering canceling their plans now.

"Thomas Bach is positioning it as business as usual because he has to," said Conrad Wiacek, head of analysis and consulting at Sportcal, a GlobalData company that focuses on the business of sport. "Heading off the insurance companies is one thing at this point, but at the moment is to sort of reassure the general public that the Games are going ahead and there’s no need to cancel plans and it’s all safe to go."

To public health experts, sharing information is critical during a pandemic. They stressed that for an organization such as the IOC, stating what it does and does not know actually can help allay fears.

“The more upfront the IOC can be with people and the more real time they can give information so people can plan, the better,” said Sue Anne Bell, an assistant professor at the University of Michigan school of nursing.

Forcing athletes to decide for themselves?

In a letter to the IOC this week, Sens. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., and Richard Blumenthal, D-Conn., asked a series of questions about protocols and contingency plans during the Games to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

“This deserves the immediate attention of the IOC, along with a transparent, detailed description of protocols in place to deter further spread of the disease,” the Senators wrote.

By their nature, the Olympics could hardly be a better petri dish for the spread of disease. People travel from every corner of the globe before living, eating and congregating together for days on end.

Many athletes live together in a dormitory-style athletes village and eat in a centralized cafeteria. The close quarters that make for charming stories of Olympians of all shapes, sizes and nationalities trading pins, autographs or selfies becomes a nightmare for containing a virus.

The type of social distancing countries are relying on to slow down the spread of COVID-19 is all but impossible, especially in sports that require close contact.

Already, other types of mass gatherings have accelerated the spread of the disease. The Diamond Princess cruise ship, which was docked off the coast of Japan for two weeks, led to nearly 700 confirmed cases of the virus and seven deaths.

To some, like Morrison – the global health expert – the Olympics creates risks that likely cannot be mitigated entirely.

“So the Olympics, by definition, would be an accelerator of infection,” he said. “It’s the opposite of what you want to do in this period. What you want to do is suspend large gatherings, including sporting events.”

He and other public health experts said the IOC needs clear plans for how it will address the virus during the Olympics. How will people be screened entering the country and the Olympics? What are the testing protocols for the coronavirus at the Games? What medical capacities does Tokyo have in place to treat and quarantine people?

“All those are pretty big boxes to check before they could responsibly do this,” Morrison said.

Public health experts stress that much could change between now and when the IOC must make a decision, wherever that falls before the July 24 opening ceremony.

Because the virus is new, scientists, researchers and doctors are still developing treatments. Other coronaviruses subside in warmer months. While that could happen with COVID-19, public health experts caution that we do not know if that is the case yet. 

“How do you make these Games and make it anything less than the scariest events of your life?” said Myron Cohen, director of the Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases at the University of North Carolina. “The answer lies in the communication of the rules and in developing interventions that people trust would work.

“Even if (the coronavirus outbreak) is less, it isn’t going to be gone. … That seems very unlikely.”

That might leave athletes and Olympic officials to assess the risks for themselves, a difficult prospect if you've spent your life preparing to compete at the Games.

Gary Hall Jr., a 10-time Olympic medalist in swimming, criticized the IOC and FINA, the international federation for swimming, for not prioritizing athlete health. He pointed to their decision to hold open-water events in a polluted bay during the Rio Games four years ago.

“If you knew you were going to catch coronavirus, there are still people that would go,” Hall said. “That is the level of commitment to this pursuit.”

For now, athletes training for Tokyo await answers about how COVID-19 could affect the Games. This week, as the sports world came to a standstill, the IOC offered them no more clarity.

“Most of the athletes who are slated to participate or still have a chance to compete there don’t want the Games to be canceled or postponed,” said Xiao. “At the same time, realistically, I do think it’s optimistic right now to say that before we see how COVID-19 runs its course.”

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