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The Tokyo Olympics' Legacy Is Already Complicated with More Uncertainty Ahead

Jessica Taylor PriceFeatured Columnist IJuly 25, 2021

The torch being lit signified the start of the Tokyo Olympics, which are taking place under unprecedented circumstances.
The torch being lit signified the start of the Tokyo Olympics, which are taking place under unprecedented circumstances.Associated Press

How will we look back on the Tokyo Olympics in three years?

As the Games kick off, Olympics-related COVID-19 cases are on the rise in Tokyo, creating a, to put it lightly, difficult situation for both the athletes and the people of Japan.

It's clear from these conditions that an asterisk shouldn't be applied to these Games—rather, it should have been a strikethrough. The athletes still deserve our support—none of this is their fault, and there's no harm in cheering them on. Still, the pandemic has brought to light issues that should make us take a serious look at why these Olympics were allowed to happen and whether any Olympics should happen at all.

For one thing, the very nature of the Olympic competition was tainted from the first pre-opening ceremony match. Competition isn't just about who is the best—rather, it's about who is the best in a certain time and place. So when the 2020 Tokyo Olympics were postponed last year, some of the integrity of the competition was thrown out the window. The Tokyo 2020 branding was put on ice, but the athletes weren't.

USA gymnast Jordan Chiles
USA gymnast Jordan ChilesJeff Roberson/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

That means that for sports like gymnastics, the makeup of the competition has been seriously altered. 2017 world all-around champion Morgan Hurd of the United States was at her peak in the lead-up to the 2020 Olympics. Then, during the break, she had two elbow surgeries, and without enough time to recover before the 2021 Olympic Trials, she was left off the team.

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On the other side of the coin, athletes who were injured or recovering from injury in 2020 had an extra year to heal. U.S. team member Jordan Chiles was one of them, and the year of training also gave her the edge to make the team this year. And Russia's Viktoria Listunova, a serious contender for an all-around medal, wouldn't have been age-eligible at all.

Now that the Games are underway, the pandemic has affected our idea of "the best" as well, as some of them decide to steer clear. North Korea withdrew from participation in April, and many individual athletes have decided to stay home.

Then there are the COVID-19 cases, raising concerns about whether the Olympics can be held safely. Coco Gauff tested positive for COVID-19 and had to withdraw from the Games, as did Dutch skateboarder Candy Jacobs and Chilean taekwondo athlete Fernanda Aguirre. Basketball player Katie Lou Samuelson also tested positive before she even made it to Tokyo. And Kara Eaker, an alternate for the U.S. gymnastics team, is in isolation after testing positive, while teammate Leanne Wong was placed in quarantine, causing concern as alternates do train with the rest of the team, albeit under restrictions.

The Associated Press reports that the Olympics-related COVID-19 tally is now at 127, and 14 of those cases are athletes, since July 1.

Our thoughts are with them in their recovery, but anxiety is also mounting. For a proud U.S. audience, we're one positive test from someone with the talent and star power of Simone Biles, Allyson Felix or Katie Ledecky away from these Olympics having an asterisk in the eyes of the public.

Mexico's men's soccer team gathers after a game versus France with no fans in attendance.
Mexico's men's soccer team gathers after a game versus France with no fans in attendance.Shuji Kajiyama/Associated Press/Associated Press/Associated Press

Yes, conditions are different for every competition, and setbacks are common—athletes get sick, they sleep on hard hotel mattresses, they deal with varying climates, countries boycott. At every competition, someone who should be there is not because of an injury—that's where the "time and place" nature of a competition comes in, and that's how we know not to dwell too much on alternate realities.

But the conditions at these Olympics are unprecedented. Athletes are competing without a crowd and without their families in attendance. There's a constant risk of infection from a deadly virus. There are setbacks, and then there are giant red flags that tell you this shouldn't be happening in the first place.

Of course, you could say that about any Olympics. Not the risk of infection part, but the part where it shouldn't be happening. In a Longreads piece last year, Dvora Meyers outlined the many deleterious effects that the Olympics have had on host communities, such as "displacement, police militarization, increased surveillance, and violence against the working class and poor people, especially Black and Brown."

Similarly, the Tokyo Games have gone vastly over budget, and the Washington Post reported that anti-Games activists said about 300 people were displaced as a result of these Olympics. The safety of the people working the Games has been a concern as well, including the injuries and deaths that occurred during stadium construction. Plus, a few days ago, the Daily Beast reported that most Olympic workers are only half-vaccinated and that this was by design.

Some of these issues have always been there, but now we have the added layer of a pandemic. Shortly before thousands of foreign spectators were set to come into the country for the Olympics, Japan declared a state of emergency in the capital. While some areas of the world have been able to return to a sort of normalcy, in Japan, only 23 percent of residents are vaccinated, and May 2021 was its deadliest month to date, according to the New York Times.

Many Tokyo residents have voiced their opposition to the Olympics.
Many Tokyo residents have voiced their opposition to the Olympics.Kantaro Komiya/Associated Press

The situation has made the Games increasingly unpopular for communities in Tokyo. Back in May, an Asahi Shimbun poll that totaled 1,527 valid responses found that 83 percent of voters in Japan opposed hosting the Games this summer. And when the opening ceremony kicked off a few days ago, members of the media who were in attendance could hear protesters just outside the stadium.

Why weren't the Olympics canceled, then? Follow the money. Despite sponsors like Toyota dialing back on their ads, they've already paid, and billions in television rights revenue are still pouring in, money that the International Olympic Committee would have lost if the Games were canceled.

At this point, things would have to get much, much worse for the Games to be canceled. And that is telling. We now have a clearer picture of who is dispensable in the face of all this cash.

At the same time, it's OK for our relationship to the Games to be complicated—they always have been. Despite the protests, the athletes are already at the Olympics, likely the apex of their athletic careers, and they will compete under tough, uncertain conditions. Plus, 74 percent of them will never compete at another Games.

Still, as the Games go on and medals are awarded, it will be easy to forget what it took to get there, what has already been lost and what we still stand to lose. Don't.

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