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What we learned from the Tokyo Olympics

TOKYO — The Tokyo Olympics have shown that the global sporting event is increasingly tied to events beyond athletics — a reality that will be inescapable in future Games.

Why it matters: From the handling of COVID to protest rules and shaky economics, there are lessons for Olympicsorganizers in Beijing, Paris and beyond, as well as things to ponder for those considering hosting or sponsoring upcoming Olympics.


Between the lines: While COVID-19 delayed and then reshaped the Tokyo Olympics, we have yet to see the Games turn into a much-feared global superspreader event.

  • It's too soon to declare victory, but the combination of frequent pre-Games and game-time testing, combined with an estimated 80%-plus vaccination rate, seems to have limited outbreaks among the Olympics participants.
  • Still, there were no fans, 29 athletes were excluded after testing positive, and even those who were able to take part had a dramatically altered Olympic experience, without spectators or even family and friends to cheer them on.

Yes, but: We can't say yet that the Olympics passed the test. For one thing, the incubation period for COVID will take a few more weeks, so we won't know the full extent of Olympics-related cases until that time has passed.

  • There's also a spike in cases throughout Tokyo, and infectious disease experts say it's too early to rule out any connection to the Games.

There’s been a dearth of meaningful COVID information from organizers, said Annemarie Sparrow, a professor at the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai Hospital.

  • For instance, the International Olympic Committee reported a .002 positivity rate from about 500,000 COVID tests this week. But “we don’t know what the denominator is,” Sparrow said, referring to exact numbers of how many people, including athletes, are in the Olympic Village on any given day.
  • Using conservative estimates, the math works out to an average of about 16 daily cases per 100,000. “If the Olympic Village were a country, it would be on a par with Russia & Brazil —43rd & 44th worst in the world,” Sparrow tweeted.

Health care experts say it will be critical to have an independent study examine where the transmission was most likely occurring at the Tokyo Games, to better focus on areas of high transmission for the Winter Games in Beijing.

  • They also say there needs to be a better plan for how individuals are isolated for COVID protocols, after Tokyo organizers came under fire for the conditions athletes faced during quarantine.

The heat was also a major factor in Tokyo, and a reminder that global warming will need to be considered in the timing of future Games, as well as which cities are chosen and how venues are designed.

  • Host countries can construct venues with shade in mind and other relief from the heat, or organizers can schedule the Games for a cooler time of year.

Olympic officials have also had to bend on longstanding rules against political demonstrations.

  • In Tokyo, women’s soccer players took a knee before a number of matches, while athletes from the U.S. and China also found ways to make political statements that pushed the boundaries of even the relaxed standards.

The big picture: The Olympics is a huge business, and the financial assumptions that underlie the Games are overdue for reevaluation.

  • The people of Japan got little for their massive investment, separated by metal fences from the Games they paid so dearly to host. With no ticket revenue, an already challenging economic bet turned into a sea of red ink.
  • Sponsors, likewise, saw their ability to capitalize on their investment sharply limited. Gone entirely was the ability to schmooze clients and pitch products to fans.
  • TV ratings were down, too.

What’s next: The Paralympics will start in Tokyo on Aug. 24, and the Winter Olympics will kick off in Beijing in February 2022.

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