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Covid's devastating toll on the Tokyo Olympics

The Olympics always leave a mark on the host city. For Tokyo, the price has been steep.
Image: Tokyo
People cross a street in Tokyo, Japan on Aug. 5, 2021Yuichi Yamazaki / Getty Images

When I visited Tokyo to report on pre-Olympic planning in the summer of 2019, many daunting obstacles and challenges were apparent even before the emergence of the pandemic in the months ahead. There was consternation among locals about cost overruns, displacement and the presence of a more militarized security system than modern Tokyo has ever been accustomed to.

The number of people in the Olympic bubble who caught Covid-19 stands at 387.

I met elderly people being displaced from their homes for the Games who had also been displaced the last time Tokyo hosted them in 1964. Back then, locals were acutely aware that those Olympics were held in the autumn because of the unbearable Tokyo summer heat. In today's times of elevated temperatures, this year's timing seemed like a recipe for pain for the world-class athletes, not to mention the thousands upon thousands other people who would be visiting the country.

Now that the dust is clearing from the Games, it must be acknowledged that somehow — without spectators, with the specter of Covid-19, with volunteers quitting by the thousands, with tremendous resistance from locals — they pulled it off. Yet pulling it off has come with a price.

The number of people in the Olympic bubble who caught Covid-19 stands at 387, more than 200 of them being Olympic contractors, not athletes, coaches or trainers. Security for the bubble was reported to be shoddy in places, and according to social media posts, visitors to the Games shirked masking rules and allowed the lure of seeing one of the world's great cities to trump safety.

In Tokyo as a whole, the situation is more dire, with the number of new infections rising above 5,000 per day. The delta variant now accounts for about 90 percent of new cases in and around the mammoth, sprawling city. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has sounded the warning that Tokyo is in for a rough time, yet he denies that there is any connection between the Olympics and the startling outbreak in the city. It is understandable why he would deny this; the country has invested over $20 billion in hosting the Games. Public pressure to cancel or delay them was intense. Yet organizers pushed forward, and now they must live with the consequences — even if they deny them.

Bars in Tokyo broke curfew so people could watch the Games, giving way to an illegal Olympic-watching nightlife.

The fact that Japan is having the most successful Olympics in its history only added incentives to the desire to watch in a collective environment. Bars in Tokyo broke curfew so people could watch the Games, giving way to an illegal Olympic-watching nightlife that created yet another avenue for the disease to spread.

Holding the Olympics during the pandemic also signaled a disheartening breach in trust between the people of Japan and its government; polls showed that at one point 80 percent of Japanese people were opposed to hosting the Olympics. It didn't help that the state of emergency imposed concurrent with the Olympics was widely perceived as having been called for the Olympics, to keep numbers down and to avoid the international embarrassment of the Games' becoming a superspreader event for a largely vulnerable population.

Very atypically for Japan, the people have responded with a mistrust of the government, which has led to the flouting of the very masking, social distancing and curfew measures that have kept the numbers so much lower than we have seen in the U.S. and some other Western countries, even with a lower vaccination rate.

The Olympics always leave a mark on the host city. Sometimes it is viewed as a positive, sometimes certainly as a negative. In Tokyo, it could signal a very dangerous turning point: a turn toward cynicism in regard to public health. As the delta variant — and don't forget delta plus! — festers and looms, cases could prove to be devastating.

If his actions so far are any indication, Thomas Bach and the International Olympic Committee won't take responsibility for the rise in Covid-19 cases, but they should. The Olympics in theory should breed hope and wonder at the always climbing limits of human performance. These games in particular have seen heartening demonstrations of sportsmanship between nations, something that in past Olympiads has been in short supply.

But for the people of Tokyo, alienation from their own government is looking like a very real result, as criticism of the IOC's perceived disregard for the Japanese people continues. Public health will suffer for it. But perhaps the next time Japan's government tries to strongarm an event against the will of the people, we'll see a new resistance birthed out of this very alienation. That would be one hell of an Olympic legacy.