Opinion: Uncertainty, not optimism, over 2021 Olympics takes hold in Japan

The words were chilling, if not at all surprising.

“To be honest with you, I don’t think the Olympics is likely to be held next year,” Kentaro Iwata, a professor of infectious disease at Kobe University, said on a teleconference Monday. “Holding the Olympics needs two conditions; one, controlling COVID-19 in Japan, and controlling COVID-19 everywhere.”

That’s not happening today, obviously. Whether it’s happening by the summer of 2021 is another matter entirely.

Uncertainty, not optimism, grips Japanese leaders. Ten days ago, Toshiro Muto, the CEO of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, which have been postponed until July 23, 2021, said he couldn’t guarantee the Games will be staged next year.

“I don’t think anyone would be able to say if it is going to be possible to get it under control by next July or not,” Muto said at a virtual news conference. “We certainly are not in a position to give you a clear answer.”

The Tokyo Olympics have been moved to the summer of 2021, but there is concern in Japan on whether the world will have COVID-19 contained enough to proceed.

A clear answer is what everyone would like but no one will get. When the International Olympic Committee boldly and quickly announced the new 2021 dates for the Summer Games, its confidence was jarring, and, quite frankly, dishonest.

It’s great to give everyone hope. But that’s all it is, hope. During this pandemic, honesty is necessary, and here’s the only truth that matters at the moment: the IOC has no idea if its July 23-August 8, 2021 dates are truly possible. And it might be several months, perhaps even until the end of the year, before it has a clue.

CHRISTINE BRENNAN:For 1980 athletes, Olympic postponement brings bittersweet memories of boycott

“It’s too early to tell,” S. Jay Olshansky, Ph.D., professor at the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said in a phone interview Tuesday. “We’re not likely to have a vaccine until next year at this time so that would be just before the Olympics. I don’t know if that in and of itself would be sufficient to allow the Olympics to carry on.

“But remember, researchers are working hard to find treatments and the treatments may in fact come before the vaccine. If you get an effective treatment, that is a game changer, so we don’t know, and I certainly would not come to a conclusion at this time.”

It’s truly a question of what the world looks like in 2021. Will spectators want to travel that summer? Will Tokyo, which has seen a recent spike in COVID-19 cases, be safe to visit? Will fans from around the world want to sit in large stadiums? That’s unthinkable right now. Perhaps it won’t be by next year.

We might as well ask the same questions about the next Winter Olympics. They are scheduled to be held in Beijing Feb. 4-20, 2022, just six months after the Tokyo Games. Are they in jeopardy too? The IOC would be foolish to think they’re safe right now.

If the Tokyo Olympics cannot be held, the impact obviously would be profound for athletes around the world. It also would be significant for Japan, which has officially spent $12.6 billion on the Games, although a government audit says it really is at least twice that much. Even worse, the postponement is estimated to cost another $2 billion to $6 billion, and, not surprisingly, the IOC and Tokyo organizers aren’t in agreement over who is responsible for that.

The decision to move the Tokyo Olympics from the summer of 2020 to the summer of 2021 was initiated not from the top down, but from the bottom up. A groundswell of athlete concerns about training in the midst of the coronavirus outbreak forced the IOC’s hand last month. It wasn’t so much about July and August 2020, it was about the conditions right then in March 2020.

Those athletes are still struggling to practice in the midst of the shutdown and restrictions around the world. Olympic swimming gold medalists Katie Ledecky and Lilly King said last week they are swimming in backyard pools in California and Indiana, respectively. Another Olympic gold medalist, Allison Schmitt, is swimming for just 45 minutes a day, and only about three days a week, at a Phoenix area country club, her coach Bob Bowman said Tuesday.

He figures that even if some semblance of normalcy doesn't return until the fall, about six months from now, Olympic athletes still should be able to be ready for a 2021 Summer Games. Then again, who can be sure of anything these days?

“I’ve been having individual Zoom meetings with the kids on our team, three or four coaches and one of the swimmers, and the main thing that we get to say is, ‘We don’t know,’ ” Bowman said.

“They ask, ‘When do you think we’ll be back?’ ‘I don’t know.’

“‘Think there’ll be a season?’ ‘I don’t know.’

Said Bowman, “We’re very comfortable now with ‘I don’t know.’ ”