Just because the pandemic Olympics are over doesn’t mean they were a success

TOKYO – As New Year’s Eve 2020 turned into New Year’s Day 2021, a narrow genre of social media posts proliferated: the one where people congratulated themselves and anyone reading on having “made it.” 2020 had been terrible, but now, at long last, it was over. We did it. “Mission accomplished” vibes.

In the very literal sense that the people tweeting and scrolling through Twitter were still alive, unlike nearly half a million people who succumbed to COVID-19 last year in America alone, that was technically true. But there was no actual absolution to be found in waiting out the calendar. The pandemic wasn’t over, for one thing, but also the previous year had been an abject societal failure in mitigating it, reacting to it, and insulating essentially anyone from the economic and psychological fallout. 2020 was over because that’s how the passage of time works, not because we had beaten it in any meaningful sense.

On an individual level, the need for relief or hope or both is eminently understandable. Living through a slow rolling mass death is pretty depressing — not least because, even now, almost a year and a half in, we can’t see the horizon. Imagining progress is an important survival tactic.

The same is not true of institutions, including and especially media, which have a moral responsibility to reflect the severity of a disaster that’s impossible to independently evaluate. When you can’t see the threat, it’s incumbent on powers that shape the cultural milieu to convey a clear-eyed and accurate picture.

The pandemic won’t end until enough people take it seriously enough. Now that effective vaccines are increasingly available, that’s the only thing we’re waiting on. Messaging isn’t ancillary to the fight, it’s the only meaningful tactic.

Just because the Olympics are over doesn’t mean they were a success. We “made it” to the closing ceremonies because that’s how the passage of time works, not because the circumstances that forced a postponement last year or cast uncertainty over the Games in the lead-up have been resolved.

As the sun sets on the Tokyo Olympics, it's crucial to frame them correctly. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)
As the sun sets on the Tokyo Olympics, it's crucial to frame them correctly. (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images)

I simply don’t believe that the 2021 version of the Olympics were ever going to get canceled. And certainly not after they had already started. Nothing that happened in the past three weeks affected whether we made it to this moment. If the recent history of sports and COVID have taught us anything, it’s that organizers are more than willing to forge ahead irrespective of the community rates. And that’s what happened here.

On the day of the Opening Ceremony, July 23, 2021, there were a little more than 1,300 new COVID cases in Tokyo. On Aug. 5, the most recent day for which we have results, there were more than 5,000 new COVID cases in Tokyo for the first time since the start of the pandemic. That number could double again in the next 10 days. This is an especially troubling, terrifying development at this stage. What seemed to be coming under control is not; the situation is obviously worsening after months of much-needed improvement.

If the Olympics ever intended to be responsive to the coronavirus situation in the host city, this would seem to be exactly the kind of public health trend that would merit a reaction.

Instead, they were allowed to run their course, not because anything went especially right but because nothing too close to the Games went terribly wrong.

Inside look at a pandemic Olympics slideshow embed
Inside look at a pandemic Olympics slideshow embed

To be clear: The soaring cases are the result of the Delta variant and vaccine hesitancy. The Olympics didn’t cause this new wave — and, as is always the case with so-called sports “bubbles,” frequent testing turns up positives that may have occurred anyway, just away from such public scrutiny. The protocols designed to protect people involved in the games were (largely) science-based and seem to have worked. It’s impossible and probably unimportant at this point to know what the community rate would look like if the IOC or the Japanese government had thrown $15.4 billion to the wind and called off the Games.

But it is absolutely critical that we don’t let the Olympics masquerade as a meaningful barometer, even implicitly or unintentionally.

If I told you in March or April or even August of last year that more than 4 million people would be dead from COVID come August 2021 — and that rates would be on the rise again as a result of an even deadlier, more contagious variant — you would be horrified at the colossal global failure. That the Olympics were eventually held without too much disruption would seem like an insignificant and embarrassing blip in hopefully otherwise doing whatever it took to turn back the tide. Deck chairs on the Titanic vibes, only something worse because this convinces people to sit back and relax when they should be sounding the alarm.

If you don’t hold the Olympics one year because of the pandemic, and then do the following year, that sends one particular message loud and clear. This is not the first time since sports were stopped on account of COVID that their resumption has — at times explicitly and intentionally — signaled a “return to normalcy.” How has that worked so far? I wrote that last hyperlinked column in May of 2020.

Don’t let anyone walk away from a month which set the entire planet back and guaranteed untold more people will die touting the success of anything COVID-related just because some medals were handed out. Widen your scope: What we’re doing right now isn’t working.

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