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OPINION: Should the show really go on in Tokyo?

This is an opinion piece written by equitysport Founder; Tim Harper.

The IOC announced this week that they will shortly release a “toolbox” of measures designed to ensure the Tokyo Olympics can go ahead in the summer of 2021. But will they cater to the world at large?

It’s understood that whilst athletes, support staff and administrators travelling to Japan for the Games will be encouraged to vaccinate themselves against COVID-19 in an “act of solidarity” with the Japanese population and their fellow competitors, it will not be an IOC requirement.

The IOC has asked all 206 NOCs to determine the vaccination situation in their respective countries and regions, in consultation with local authorities, and report back to the governing body in early February. Thomas Bach, IOC President, added that Olympic participants should “only seek vaccination once it becomes available to the general public”, presumably to allay the concerns of the World Health Organisation (WHO) who have warned against suggestions that athlete vaccinations should be prioritised to allow for the Games to go ahead.

The blind faith that the IOC has in the power of inoculation in saving the Tokyo Olympics is confusing and represents an increasingly irresponsible and gun-ho approach to the staging the Games come-what-may. Even a cursory look at the global roll out of vaccinations shows that at the current rate, the idea that thousands of athletes and their extended entourages from every corner of the planet can be vaccinated before getting on the plane to Japan is the work of fantasy.

Even in the UK, where over 10% of the adult population have received at least their first shot of the vaccine, current projections would see the young, healthy demographic from which Olympians are drawn, only receiving their vaccine in September or October; two months after the games. In US, and wider Europe, the roll out is slower still, and so the timelines simply do not match up to a safely inoculated Olympic Games kicking off in July.

Of wider concern, both in and out of sport, is that the access to vaccines globally is not and isn’t set to be equal. No country in Africa, bar Egypt has reserved enough vaccine contracts to inoculate more than 50% of their population, compared to Canada and the UK who have secured enough vaccine to cover their respective populations three times over. In South America - Brazil, Argentina and Chile lead the way with vaccine contracts, but still only have reserved enough to cover for just over 60% of their population.

It begs the question as to how the IOC proposes that over 10,000 participants, coaches and support staff, most of whom are amongst the healthiest and lowest priority for vaccines from a public health perspective are going to access their jabs before July?

Even if by some miracle, the vaccine rollout across the world undergoes a transformational acceleration and whole populations are successfully inoculated before the summer, how can the IOC guarantee that those athletes outside of Western Europe and North America where vaccine access is non-existent, aren’t disadvantaged or cut out of the Games entirely? If the vaccinations aren’t in an athletes country of origin, they simply can’t get vaccinated, however efficient the rollout.

It’s all very well for the IOC to decide that vaccination won’t be a requirement for participation, but should the IOC and the Games organisers pull this off and vaccination remains the primary instrument in the C19 “toolbox” for protecting both the competitors and the Japanese population, then those from the Global South who want to take up their rightful place in Tokyo, will be doing so without inoculation; and therefore will be bearing a deep personal risk that perhaps their peers from Europe and North America won’t be.

The picture darkens still when we consider the relative impacts of an athlete from the Global North contracting COVID-19 at the Games, compared to one from the Global South. We know from doctors in Japan that cases are still rising in Tokyo, and local hospitals simply won’t have the capacity to contain an outbreak amongst foreign teams at the Games. And whilst athletes traveling under the British, Canadian, French, Chinese or US flag can expect to be supported by the best doctors and medical staff sport can muster; can the same support be guaranteed to teams without such generous support budgets?

The IOC may cry foul at this critique, reminding us that 10,000 medical staff are set to be recruited locally between now and July to support the Games and athletes competing under any flag, but is that really where finite resources in Japan should be targeted? Shouldn’t they be working on the pandemic itself?

Similarly, the potential impacts are different still following a successfully delivered games. In the Global North, quarantine protocols, and the capacity to protect the wider population from those potentially bringing the virus back from the Games are, for the most part, well developed and well rehearsed. Even with healthcare systems under considerable duress in places like the UK, should there be a post-Games outbreak once a traveling athlete has returned, it could realistically be contained and the expected outcomes are largely positive.

Compare that to the potential impact in a country without a reliable healthcare system, places where through careful and necessary management by local governments, the first two waves of the coronavirus have been largely avoided - would a post-Games outbreak, brought about by a returning Olympic squad, be just as manageable? And from the perspective of the integrity of the Olympics themselves, does this reality pressure NOCs from lower income countries to take drastic precautions ahead of the games such as limiting the number of athletes in their party or abandoning the games altogether to mitigate the potential risk at home?

There is very little in the way of a level playing field in Olympic sport between the rich and the poor - the GDP of your country of origin remains the most powerful determinant of Olympic success - but the impact of those inequalities, at least during an Olympic Games are usually confined to the stadiums themselves, they manifest themselves most obviously as the difference between participation and podium places, between notoriety and “also-rans”. However, in the middle of a raging global pandemic, these inequalities risk spilling out from the stadia and becoming the difference between life and death.

There is huge scepticism as to how the IOC can realistically deliver an Olympic Games in the Summer and rightly so, but whatever decisions are made, whatever “toolboxes” are put together and whatever plans are rolled out, they cannot risk entrenching inequalities across the global North - South divide, in or out of sport.

In the midst of a global pandemic that has already robbed the lives of 2.2 million people around the world, caused untold social and economic destruction and is now breaking off into new variants by the month, the greatest “act of solidarity”, of which the IOC are so fond, would be to have the courage and conviction to ensure that their ‘solidarity’ extends way beyond the gold-plated luxury of Lausanne, Western Europe and the Global North, and perhaps beyond sport entirely.

Maybe it's high time to remind the IOC that the Olympic Movement exists in servitude of wider society, and not the other way around.


equitysport is a UK-registered charity (1189559) that exists to advance equality, diversity and equal opportunity in and through global sport. Through free-form development, education programmes and targeted advocacy the charity seeks an inclusive and equitable sporting ecosystem that lives up to the true values of sport.

Notes to Editors

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