Debate Persists Over Whether Tokyo Olympics Should Be Canceled : NPR

NPR’s Noel Kings speaks with International Olympic Committee member Dick Pound about the upcoming Tokyo Olympics. The former Canadian swimmer says the Games will go ahead despite protests.


The Tokyo Summer Olympics are scheduled to start next month. The games were postponed last year, of course, because of the pandemic. Many Japanese doctors say they should be this year, too. But Japanese officials and members of the International Olympic Committee have insisted the games will go on. One of them is Dick Pound. He’s a former Olympic swimmer from Canada, now a member of the IOC. When we talked yesterday, I asked him about the wisdom of this decision.

DICK POUND: Everybody involved with the organization has switched over to the operational mode, as you do in the last couple of months before an event like the Olympic Games. It looks like we’re a go. There’ll be some differences because of the cutbacks and the lack of foreign spectators, but the essence of the games, the competition between the athletes from 206 different countries, will be everything that we hoped for.

KING: You sound very confident. I should note that your confidence is a bit controversial. The Tokyo Medical Practitioners Association, a group of doctors, says the games should be canceled because there is a surge in infections. Polls show that a majority of Japanese people don’t want the games to happen. What do you make of the fact that a lot of people who are very smart about COVID don’t think these games should go on?

POUND: Well, I think always there will be differences of opinion, even on science. In some cases, the science has a tendency to get politicized. But that doesn’t mean that all of the people who are charged with the games, the responsibility for putting them on, aren’t availing themselves of the best possible medical advice from the public health authorities and are taking all of the risks into account. Nobody wants to put on games where you have an increased risk of transmission of the COVID.

KING: Why not move the Summer Games to 2022?

POUND: When the Japanese and the IOC came to a joint conclusion last year that it was not going to be feasible to put the games on during 2020, the Japanese authorities said, look, we can hold this together for a year, but no longer.

KING: The organizers have announced that the games will take place without any international spectators, and they’re considering banning all spectators. I mean, a big part of the Olympics is people from around the world coming together to watch them in person. Tell me about why you think it’s still worth hosting the games.

POUND: Well, I think fans are nice to have. They’re not must-haves. And if you think about it, 99.5 or more percent of the people around the world who will experience the Tokyo Games will do so by a television or some other electronic platform where they don’t care whether there are spectators or not. I mean, the cameras and the attention will be focused on the athletes and the sport, not people in the crowd. So if you ask most athletes, would you rather have live spectators when you’re competing or not, most would say yes. They’d say, well, if we can’t have any spectators, should we cancel the games? They’d say, oh, my God – no, no, no. Heavens, don’t even think about that. What’s really important is the competition. And we can certainly live without spectators if that’s the price of doing it in a pandemic context.

KING: It’s important to athletes. I understand that. It also is about, I would imagine, keeping sponsors and TV networks happy. There’s a lot of money in the Olympics. And that’s going to lead to some charges that money is at the center of pushing this thing forward, as opposed to wisdom about the outbreak of a very dangerous virus. Can I ask you to just contend with that for a second?

POUND: Sure. It’s something that seems to roll off the lips of the Fourth Estate with charming simplicity, but it’s just not true.

KING: Tell me why.

POUND: The main consideration here, the go or no-go decision will be determined by public health concerns. The money side of it is – first of all, people think it’s sunk money; it’s gone and disappeared. But the high percentage of the Olympic costs and investment will be in infrastructure like the Olympic Village, like the stadia and so on, all of which they’ve already made arrangements to have as part of an ongoing part of the country and its infrastructure. In the sense of television, it’s a deferral. It’s not an outright loss. In the case of sponsorships, I think all of the sponsors have accepted the fact that there is a delay. And, you know, they’ve made their adjustments accordingly. In a project as complex as the Olympic Games, that all of the stakeholders from the very beginning, pre-COVID and so on, will have their own risk mitigation strategies, I think it’s too glib and too easy to say that this is all about money because it’s really not.

KING: How big would the damage be to the Olympic brand if an outbreak occurs, if one of the athletes gets sick, get some people in Japan sick. It seems like that would potentially be a very big hit to the International Olympic Committee. How much is that on your mind?

POUND: Well, the protection of the athletes and those with whom they come in contact is a big deal. Can we create the bubble that everybody’s been talking about? The answer to that is yes. We already know how to control the spread of the virus. You know, the social distancing, the masks, the clean hands and so on – that actually works. So we know how to do that. All of these things are being examined very carefully by an organizing committee, which, frankly, is one of the best we’ve ever seen in the Olympics.

KING: Dick Pound, a member of the International Olympic Committee. Mr. Pound, thank you so much for joining us. We really appreciate it.

POUND: Any time. Thank you.


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