When ABC broadcast the Olympics in the 1970s, its coverage, anchored by Jim McKay, was pretty good, even if it was meticulously geared to an all-American audience. In the 1990s, however, some whiz-kid corporate executives got it into their heads that what Americans really wanted was wall-to-wall coverage of only those events Americans were competing in, and specifically wanted to view only the American athletes themselves. Soon we were being treated to tedious 10-minute vignettes of an athlete’s upbringing, with cameos by their coaches, family members, girlfriends, boyfriends, and even their grade school teachers. Actual time spent on the competitions themselves dwindled to about one event per hour, laced with a thousand commercials about cars, watery American beers, insurance, and drugs with cute names ending in vowels that we were urged to pester our doctors to prescribe.
It also became painfully evident that many of these heavily glorified athletes were jacked up for months or years before the games on something just barely shy of illegal for performance enhancement, right up until the point where they had to pass a urine or blood test. So at least some of them—especially the ones from opaquely autocratic states like Russia—weren’t even normal humans anymore: they were more akin to the genetically modified, perfect-looking vegetables we can buy at our local chain grocer.
Okay, maybe that’s a bit harsh. But it might account for the degree of schadenfreude I felt when I read the savage verdict of The Washington Post’s David Von Drehle, regarding the 2021 Summer Olympics scheduled to proceed in Tokyo.
The Olympic promise to bring people together, always a bit fatuous, is a flat-out fraud this year, because the public is forbidden to attend these Games. This is about money and money only.
Not for the Japanese (or “Chinese,” as IOC President Thomas Bach briefly called them on Tuesday). For them, the Olympics will be a sucking financial wound. Predictably — one might say inevitably — the Games are billions of dollars over budget, and without tourists, revenue will be nearly nonexistent. Nor will the athletes profit, apart from a few breakout stars. The hosts spend billions; the athletes devote years; the fat cats pocket the dough.
The Olympics have been about corporate money for a long time now, so that really isn’t news. What is particularly unusual about these particular Olympics is the fact that the host country (and by that, I mean the people who actually live there) wants absolutely no part of them.
As Drehle writes:
In a few days, the IOC will force Japan, against the wishes of a vast majority of the Japanese public, to stage an Olympics in the middle of a pandemic. The prime minister has declared a state of emergency; the IOC says the show must go on. Though Japan is already reeling from a shortage of doctors and nurses, the IOC will divert hundreds, if not thousands, of health-care workers to try to prevent their folly from spreading disease around the world.
A poll conducted in mid-May revealed that 83% of Japanese citizens did not want the Olympics to go forward in their country. According to the World Health Organization, only 8% of the Japanese population had been fully vaccinated as of the end of June (some sources now put that number at about 17%). As early as May, the Tokyo Medical Practitioners Association, representing the views of about 6,000 Japanese doctors, lobbied unsuccessfully for the Games to be cancelled. All of these pleas have gone ignored; according to the edict of the International Olympic Committee, the show simply must go on.
Significantly, there was no requirement from the IOC or anyone else that the tens of thousands of athletes, coaches, and ancillary participants—including each country’s media contingent—be fully vaccinated when they arrive in Japan, a fact that was backhandedly confirmed by U.S. swimmer Michael Andrew, who refuses to be vaccinated but is still scheduled to compete. And while most will have received their shots, the potential for an Olympic-sized superspreader event can hardly be discounted, much less written off.
Even as athletes and their supporting staff arrive, well in advance of the Games, several have tested positive for COVID-19 upon entry. On Wednesday, CNBC reported a “cluster” of COVID-19 infections in a hotel where the Brazilian team is staying. Members of the South African rugby team are already in isolation as three members have tested positive, possibly from contact with someone infected on the plane they arrived in. U.S. basketball team guard Bradley Beal is currently undergoing multiple testing protocols in the U.S, while Britain’s top-ranked tennis players Dan Evans and Johanna Konta have already been forced to drop out due to testing positive for COVID-19.
A coach and one of the athletes from the Ugandan team tested positive after arrival in Japan, as did a member of Serbia’s rowing team, and two unidentified athletes from Israel and Lithuania. Another athlete as yet unidentified is also currently quarantined in Tokyo after testing positive, along with five Olympic staff workers. As former hockey player and bronze medalist Kieran Govers aptly put it on Thursday, these athletes, and the people who support them, are simply walking into a potential “COVID bomb.”
Meanwhile, Tokyo has seen a surge in cases higher than any recorded for the past six months, with health experts expecting those numbers to double by the time the Olympics end. The potential for widespread infections has already prompted organizers to ban all spectators from the Games. There will be no cheering, no autograph signing, and winning athletes will be draping their own medals around their necks, rather than having them put on by Olympic officials.
In the face of what fairly appears to be a public health catastrophe in the making, you might expect that the IOC might consider cancelling the Games, or, at a minimum, rescheduling them for 2022. After all, the argument that a few athletes might have their lifelong hopes for glory postponed for (another) 12 months rings rather hollow when compared to the number of people who will certainly end up dead or hospitalized as a result of holding these Olympics in the midst of a global pandemic.
But as formerThe Washington Post sports columnist Mike Wise explains, the impulse driving the IOC has little, if anything, to do with the athletes. What’s driving the IOC’s obstinacy is its own financial commitment, along with the financial commitments of NBCUniversal and the Japanese government, all of which have multi-billion-dollar stakes in these Olympics going forward as scheduled. NBC Universal owns the U.S rights to air the games through 2032. The price of that privilege was $7.5 billion. The IOC, a “nonprofit” funded through the sale of broadcast rights and advertising, would have to reimburse NBCUniversal if the Games were cancelled, a move that would likely throw it into bankruptcy. Meanwhile, the nation of Japan has already blown through its own budget for the Games and, as explained here, risks an additional loss of up to $16 billion if they are cancelled.
In other words, it’s a perfect storm of corporate greed and government negligence, one that likely never anticipated the occurrence of a global pandemic when all of the contracts were being inked. And naturally, when weighed against those billions of dollars, the lives and future health of Japanese citizens, as well as of those heralded athletes, must necessarily be put into some reasonable perspective.
As Wise wryly observes:
The International Olympic Committee gets the gold for greed, NBC Universal earns silver and Japanese Olympic organizers win bronze. Their prioritization of financial windfall over a public health crisis will be an enduring storyline of these pandemic-scarred Games.
NBCUniversal paid $7.5 billion to extend its U.S. Olympics media rights until 2032. NBCUniversal is the IOC’s golden goose, its largest single source of income. The money the network recoups in ratings and advertising dollars cannot be deferred further. Tokyo can’t lose another dime, rising infection rates from the delta variant be damned.
Wise notes that the appropriate response would be to simply postpone the Games until 2022, a move that would have the least impact on the athletes themselves, whether young or older. But, as Wise notes, that is not how the IOC/NBC/Tokyo trifecta sees it.
But the IOC, network heads and Japanese officials are focused on income. And when they weighed those billions against the possibility of residents and athletes contracting covid and much of the host country wishing they’d pick real-life ethics over professional gain, humanity never stood a chance.
So as of this writing, despite all the flashing red warning signs, the Games will go on. NBCUniversal’s chief executive Jeff Schell has even chimed in with some soothing words of reassurance:
Every Olympics has an issue that people worry about in the run up to the Games, Shell said.
“I lived in London: everybody was worried about the traffic. And last time it was Zika, and then once the Opening Ceremony happens, everybody forgets all that and enjoys the 17 days. And I think this is going to be the same thing,” he said.
The hubris of these people truly knows no bounds. However, there is one thing we can all do in the event that NBCUniversal’s CEO is somehow wrong about what will happen with these Olympics going forward. In fact, I think I’ll even do this if he turns out to be right.
The answer is simple: Boycott.
While I can live with all the beer and car commercials and the mindless commentary in between, whether or not a pole vaulter clears an extra inch or a discus thrower heaves a piece of metal one foot farther than he did four years ago is not worth a single human life or a family’s only child, mother or father suffering in the ICU. And I certainly couldn’t care less about whether NBCUniversal turns a profit at the expense of the public’s health and safety.
So screw these Olympics. I’m not watching a single minute of them.