The Olympics & COVID-19; The Show Must Go On…?

Posted on August 4, 2021

The past 18 months have been turbulent across the globe, to say the very least. As we all know by now (and have been inundated with information about ad-nauseum), the emergence of the COVID-19 virus brought the world to a standstill for much of the past year and a half. In North America, the pandemic came quickly into focus on the night of March 11, 2020, when an NBA game between the Utah Jazz and the Oklahoma City Thunder was abruptly cancelled minutes before it was scheduled to start after a player on the Jazz tested positive for COVID. The next day, every major professional sports league in North America suspended their seasons. Regardless of what we all thought about the virus before that night, it suddenly hit much closer to home and became much more real – COVID-19 was here, and we were all going to have to deal with this new reality.

I only rehash this story to illustrate the role that sports played in driving home the harsh reality of this global pandemic – it brought the scope of the outbreak and the reality of the virus to the forefront and opened the eyes of many to the scary circumstances we were all suddenly thrust into.

Sports unite people from all walks of life, and in normal years, this is never more evident than during the Olympics. Citizens band together to cheer for their country and are inspired by the stories of perseverance and resiliency that are so often told through the athletes competing at the Games.

However, this year’s Olympic Games feel different, and they ARE different. The lead-up to the Games was tumultuous with the host nation, Japan, in a state of emergency amidst their battle with a fourth wave of COVID-19 that shows no signs of slowing down any time soon. Japanese citizens have protested the Games for months, upset at their government’s decision to open the country to tens of thousands of foreigners, risking the health and safety of the local Japanese population as well as the athletes and support staff involved in the Games. Instead of stories detailing the country’s medal hopefuls or the recovery from the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that struck the Tohoku Region, Japanese media have adapted to the cynicism and negativity that has run rampant amongst locals and have provided critical coverage of the Games.

The distrust and negative sentiment can largely be boiled down to one question many have asked during the lead-up to these Games – “Why?” Originally scheduled for the summer of 2020, these Olympic Games had already been postponed for an entire calendar year. Last summer, the thought was that the pandemic would be well under control by August 2021 and the world would be able to gather together once again. Issues with vaccine availability and distribution, along with more contagious variants of the virus emerging, made last summer’s hope a pipedream as case numbers are once again on the rise across the globe. This has led many to question why these Olympics are going on at all. COVID cases are spiking again in Japan, fans have been barred from attending any events in the host city, athletes were unable to bring their families, and some notable athletes (Bianca Andreescu, Denis Shapovalov, Serena Williams, Ben Simmons, Bradley Beal and Nick Kyrgios, to name just a few) have withdrawn from the Olympics over concerns relating to COVID-19. All of these factors have led to these Games feeling… lackluster, to say the least.

With so much negative press surrounding these Games, it really does lead you to wonder – should these Games have gone on? Were it not for Japan’s reported $25 billion investment, and the billions the IOC has tied up in broadcast deals, the answer would likely be, unequivocally, no. The world is only months away from the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics, so it’s not like people would be starved for international sports competitions if the Tokyo Games were not to have taken place.  No – what is true here, and is a story that so often plagues the Olympics, is the price tag associated with hosting such an event. Ultimately, the dollar rules out, and Japan had to put these Games on to justify the significant financial investment they made to host them.

Whether the Tokyo Olympics become the superspreader event many have worried about remains to be seen, but the press surrounding the Games has lacked the usual excitement and panache so often seen during a normal Olympic year. It is not just the decision to host the Games that has led to these Olympics being a PR nightmare for the host nation – the opening ceremony program director was fired at the 11th hour after the rediscovery of a comedy routine in which he made a joke about the Holocaust, and this program director wasn’t even the first to leave the post after controversy! The previous director, Hiroshi Sasaki, stepped down in March after making an off-colour remark about a performers weight. Controversy doesn’t stop there either; the composer of the opening and closing ceremonies also resigned in the week leading up to the opening ceremony after an old interview surfaced in which he admitted to bullying disabled classmates while he was in school.

These Olympic Games have been embroiled in controversy for what seems like forever. While most iterations of the Olympics are not immune to controversy, this year’s Games seem to be especially susceptible. Maybe future organizers will look to these Games as the counterpoint to the old adage of “The show must go on”. However, knowing the significant financial investment required from host nations to win the Olympic bid, I wouldn’t hold my breath.

Andrew is an Account Executive at Brookline Public Relations. A new Calgarian, Andrew is driven by his passion for seeing ideas through from ideation to execution and is never short on stories.