Planning for the Olympics has now shifted to promises of delivering a Games that puts “safety first” in a time of great uncertainty. In February 2021, the IOC released several “playbooks” outlining safety precautions for athletes, international federations, media and others who will be in attendance.

But the recent decision to ban overseas spectators from attending the Games due “to the prevailing worldwide COVID-19 pandemic” calls into question the playbook’s measures.

Removing international spectators is an important step towards the protection and safety of athletes and local citizens. Yet with only four months until the start of the Games, it’s important to remember that while spectators might not be coming from around the world, athletes, coaches, media and sport federations from all corners of the globe are expected to descend on Tokyo.

Inequitable distribution of vaccines worldwide

Is there a level playing field for all nations expected to attend? To date, more than 458 million vaccine doses have been administrated worldwide. And while this is good news, there is a lack of global equitable access to vaccines, and even within countries, not everyone is being included in national vaccination plans.

COVAX is currently the only initiative working to deliver vaccines equitably to 92 lower-income countries. The World Health Organization argues that there will be “no end to the pandemic without equitable distribution.”

Vaccine considerations for athletes

According to the IOC playbooks, being vaccinated is not a requirement for anyone attending the Games. IOC member Dick Pound suggested athletes must be given priority access to the coronavirus vaccine. IOC President Thomas Bach, however, argued that the IOC is not in favour of athletes jumping the queue and it was to be determined by governments.

Some countries — like Lithuania, Hungary, Serbia, Israel, Mexico and Russia – have already announced commitments to allowing their athletes priority or voluntary access to the vaccine. Other countries – like Canada, Germany, Britain and Italy – have announced vaccines will be given to the most vulnerable populations first.

The Chinese Olympic Committee has even gone so far as to offering to vaccinate Tokyo 2020 and Beijing 2022 athletes in territories that have approved the Chinese vaccine for use. So access for athletes is unevenly distributed.

Points of pressure

The main focus of discussions so far has been on vaccinating athletes ahead of the Games. But what about coaches, support staff, media and other people who will be in attendance? Is their health considered less important than the athletes competing at the Games? And what about the people of Tokyo, who will be put at risk because the city is hosting the Games?

Domestic sponsorship typically makes up close to 75 per cent of the organizing committee revenue. In other words, sponsors hold a lot of power.

The 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics scandal demonstrated the power sponsors hold to push the IOC to make ethical changes: at the time sponsors threatened to pull out unless the IOC reformed their operations. But for the upcoming Tokyo Games, sponsors have a financial interest in seeing the Games proceed. They have the power to put pressure on the IOC for the sake of health and safety, but will they?

Let’s not forget broadcasting rights have become critical now that international spectators are not allowed to attend. Broadcast rights fees make up more than 70 per cent of the IOC’s revenues, so there is significant incentive to ensure a Games is held even without spectators.

There are also other large media contracts at play, including the one with Japan’s top telecommunications company that’s receiving 7.3 billion yen — almost US$68 million — in taxpayer money to design mobile tracking software to curb the spread of COVID-19 during the Games.

Money over health?

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But Japan is currently behind on vaccinations compared to other countries since it only started in February 2021. According to survey by Kyodo News, 80 per cent of Japanese residents would rather see the Games cancelled or further delayed.

Last April, the IOC argued that the Games could not be delayed to 2022 as the Japanese partners and the organizing committee could not manage it. This was due to the availability of the Olympic Village, sports venues and the need for people to carry on working.

The decision to continue with the Games during a global pandemic makes it clear that finances are driving decisions, not the health of those involved.

The Olympic Charter proclaims that the Games are about “promoting a peaceful society concerned with the preservation of human dignity.” The question becomes: who will be the voice of reason?

Laura Misener, Associate Professor & Director, School of Kinesiology, Western University and Erin Pearson, PhD Student in Kinesiology, Western University