Coronavirus: Health experts say it’ll take a ‘miracle’ for Olympics to go ahead as planned

Preparing for the possible cancellation of the 2020 Tokyo Olympics
WATCH: Former Olympic swim coach Byron MacDonald explains what impact cancelling the 2020 Olympics will have on athletes and the sports world.

Canadian public health experts say the rapid spread of the new coronavirus means it’s increasingly unlikely that this summer’s Tokyo Olympics will proceed as scheduled.

This is despite assurances from Olympic organizers — including Japan’s Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and International Olympic Committee (IOC) president Thomas Bach — who have repeatedly said the Games will proceed without delay or disruption.

READ MORE: IOC won’t discuss Olympic contingency plans despite coronavirus concerns

“They’re hoping that some miracle is going to happen, but chances are there’s no miracle coming,” said Dr. Michael Gardam, an infectious disease specialist and chief of staff at Toronto’s Humber River Hospital.

The Olympics are scheduled to run between July 24 and Aug. 9 in Tokyo. The Games typically bring together more than 10,000 athletes from 190 countries, plus hundreds of thousands of tourists and spectators.

Local organizers, including Abe and Japan’s Olympics Minister Seiko Hashimoto, said Tuesday they are still preparing for a “complete” Games, including a full schedule of events with spectators.

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Coronavirus outbreak: Shinzo Abe says Japan still preparing for 2020 Olympics, won’t declare national emergency
Coronavirus outbreak: Shinzo Abe says Japan still preparing for 2020 Olympics, won’t declare national emergency

The IOC, which has the power to cancel the Games, also said it is planning for an on-time Olympics, adding that measures taken by governments around the world to combat COVID-19 give them confidence that the Games will proceed as scheduled.

But Gardam says these measures are precisely why it’s so unlikely the Olympics will go ahead as organizers hope.

Efforts to thwart the disease have included isolation and quarantine for large populations in China, Italy, France and Spain, with many other countries, including Canada, imposing travel restrictions and closing their borders.

READ MORE: Coronavirus — Tokyo Olympics torch ceremony downsized over COVID-19 fears

In light of these measures, Gardam said, it’s almost impossible to imagine a mass gathering the size of the Olympics taking place at any point in the foreseeable future.

He also says it’s very uncertain what the outbreak will look like in three months, although he thinks it’s likely many parts of the world — especially those with less developed health networks — will see the number of infections rise during this period, not decline.

“It’s actually surreal that (the Olympics) would go forward,” Gardam said.

While Bach and the IOC have acknowledged the “challenges” posed by the new coronavirus, the IOC has been unwilling to provide any details of its plans to host the Olympics amid the COVID-19 outbreak, or even to acknowledge that such plans exist.

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‘It’s pretty scary’

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While Gardam says it’s very unlikely that the Olympics will proceed as planned, he thinks organizers could reduce the risk of the Games by holding events without spectators and by limiting the number of international visitors.

He also thinks it would be helpful if the IOC was more transparent about what it’s doing, rather than avoiding and refusing to answer questions about any possible contingency plans.

READ MORE: Ontario government declares state of emergency amid coronavirus pandemic

And Gardam isn’t the only person wishing the IOC was more open.

Mark de Jonge, a two-time Olympic sprint kayaker from Halifax, said it would be nice to have a bit more information about possible scenarios that could play out depending upon how the outbreak evolves.

Coronavirus outbreak: Japan officials say 2020 Olympics on track after Trump’s comments
Coronavirus outbreak: Japan officials say 2020 Olympics on track after Trump’s comments

Still, he said, knowing more wouldn’t necessarily change how he is preparing for the Games, nor would it affect his commitment to keeping himself and his family healthy.

“Obviously, the priority is much bigger than sport,” he said. “But sport also isn’t just a trivial thing that we do.”

De Jonge said athletes put their entire lives and passion into their sport, adding that it’s going to be disappointing if things don’t work out as everyone has planned.

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At present, de Jonge is in Florida and is preparing to return to Canada, where he says he’ll self-isolate for the required 14-day period. He also learned late last week that Canoe-Kayak Canada cancelled its Olympic qualifying event due to the new coronavirus.

READ MORE: Trudeau closes Canadian borders to most foreign travellers amid coronavirus outbreak

De Jonge says it’s difficult to explain the mindset of a high-performance athlete who is committed to achieving their goals at great personal sacrifice.

He also understands how alluring the Olympics can be — especially for younger athletes who are on the cusp of making their first Games — but he wants to be sure that whatever decisions are made are in the best interest of athletes and with their health and safety in mind.

“It’s pretty scary,” he said, referring to news about the spread of the virus.

“I’m worried that (the Olympics) might not happen. But I’m even more worried for the other guys in my boat who would be first time Olympians this summer and (could) potentially miss just their one shot at going.”

It’s big business

The Olympics isn’t just about sport. It’s also about big business.

This includes partnerships with large corporations, such as Visa and General Electric, plus television broadcasters, such as NBC, which, earlier this year, reported ad revenues of roughly $1.2 billion tied to the Tokyo Games.

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NBC has also paid the IOC more than $12 billion in the past decade for the right to broadcast the Olympics between 2014 and 2032.

Japan, meanwhile, has invested upwards of $26 billion to host the Games. This includes the cost of building new infrastructure and sporting venues.

READ MORE: COVID-19 and the Tokyo Olympics — What you need to know

Chris MacDonald, a professor of business ethics at Ryerson University, says the enormous financial investment in the Olympics is almost certainly weighing on the IOC’s and local organizers’ decision-making abilities during the COVID-19 pandemic.

He says the choice of whether to proceed with the Games as scheduled, delay them or cancel them outright will have to take into consideration the amount of money that’s already been spent.

COVID-19: Tokyo moving forward with 2020 Summer Olympics despite virus fears, officials say
COVID-19: Tokyo moving forward with 2020 Summer Olympics despite virus fears, officials say

But, he says, it would be a “huge ethical failure” if the IOC wasn’t seriously considering cancelling the Games given how the world has responded to the new coronavirus.

“It’s really a bad idea for the Games to proceed as planned,” MacDonald said.

Steven Hoffman, director of the Global Strategy Lab at York University and an expert in public health, agrees that it’s very unlikely the Olympics will go ahead as planned.

However, he’s slightly more optimistic than either Gardam or MacDonald about the IOC’s chances of holding a successful, albeit modified, Olympics.

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“During an outbreak, it’s really difficult to know what’s the right thing to do,” Hoffman said. “We’ll only know after the fact whether each measure was, indeed, the right one to take at the right time.”

COVID-19: Japan PM asks public for help in fighting virus, says Olympics will go ahead
COVID-19: Japan PM asks public for help in fighting virus, says Olympics will go ahead

If, for example, the spread of the new coronavirus has diminished significantly in three months, which Hoffman says “isn’t outside the realm of possibility,” then hosting an Olympics with a few modifications or slight delay is possible.

But if things haven’t improved, and if new cases of COVID-19 continue to rise, then any kind of mass gathering would present a huge public health risk, he said.

READ MORE: Latest updates — Coronavirus in Canada

For now, Hoffman believes the IOC is taking a “wait and see” approach before making any decisions. Given the stakes involved, he thinks this approach makes sense.

And despite its refusal to provide details, the IOC, in collaboration with the World Health Organization, is likely spending most, if not all, of its time making contingency plans for how to respond to COVID-19, Hoffman said.

“There is still a good chance (the Olympics) will have to be cancelled. But maybe not, right?” he said.

“Maybe we will get that miracle and some version of the events could proceed.”

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