- The Summer Olympics in Japan were rescheduled from 2020 to August 2021.
- Despite concerns over the COVID pandemic and the big logistical work needed to put on the Games, they should go on.
- The Olympics can be a symbol of hope, and hope is what we need right now.
- This is an opinion column. The thoughts expressed are those of the author.
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We really, really need the Olympics this year.
After an unprecedented period apart, holding the Olympics would be a powerful symbol that the world can start to come back together again. They can be a beacon of hope and proof of progress against the pandemic.
The Games must go on.
There are still a lot of challenges. The virus continues to claim thousands of lives around the world each day and has overwhelmed the healthcare system in places like India and Brazil. The distribution of vaccines is moving out far too slowly in most countries, including in Japan. And the organizing effort to bring in thousands of athletes from hundreds of countries to safely compete in a multi-week event will be enormous.
The Games were already pushed back from their original 2020 date, and for these reasons, there are many calling for the Olympics to be delayed again..
But while these challenges are real and the undertaking enormous, it’s important to remember what the games represent. They are a singularly powerful symbol of our common humanity. While the realities of politics are sometimes injected into the event – whether through boycotts, cheating scandals, or the occasional friction on the field – the Olympics show us that at our best it is possible for the whole world to play by the same rules.
The Games are also one of the most iconic illustrations of what humans can achieve by setting seemingly impossible goals and expending tireless effort. That is a desperately needed spirit at this moment. After the harrowing days of COVID-19, we could all use a confidence boost. The exhilarating experience of the Games can reassure us that new possibilities lay beyond the horizon.
The head of communications at the International Olympic Committee, Christian Klaue recently told me that organizers plan to build the event around a “light at the end of the tunnel” theme. This does not mean we have emerged from the darkness. The Games should not serve as a celebration or a victory lap around the track. After more than a year and a half, weariness has started to take hold. The Games can help to reinvigorate spirits for what will hopefully be the final stretch.
Under normal conditions, international coordination on the scale of the Games is an extraordinarily challenging endeavor. Klaue says the Olympics very likely, “has the most stakeholders of any event in the world.” Yet, now, even the most basic health and logistical questions result in major divisions, taking much longer to resolve. From travel to housing, meals to medical facilities, the complexity has been compounded.
Yet, we have learned and advanced enough at this point to stage a global event safely. Smaller sporting events have been able to bring in international participants and sports leagues like the NBA have implemented sophisticated contract tracing programs. Organizers have the ability to vaccinate athletes, staff, and media. Using high-quality, rapid tests, it is possible to verify on site that no one entering the facilities is infected.
In many ways COVID-19 has torn the world apart. Countries have shut their borders, hoarded vaccines, and failed to coordinate an effective global response. There is a real risk that the pandemic will only further serve to exacerbate existing inequity and divisions for years to come. Stitching that frayed fabric back together needs to start now. I can think of no better opportunity to rebuild ties than through the Olympics.
There is also a need to start imagining what comes next. The Olympics provide us with the chance to step back from the stress and struggles we presently face. What can we do better or just differently? Looking out across so much loss and devastation, one can’t help but begin to reimagine how we live.
Not since the end of World War II have we been given an opening to rethink international institutions and ideals. Steps were taken back then with the United Nations and other multilateral organizations to better manage conflicts and global crises. Clearly, there is a lot more work needed and there is no more opportune time than during a crisis.
So, let’s meet this momentous moment. Not only hold the Games, but use them to start a new dialogue with the world. What does our collective future look like and how do we get there? If we can agree to play sports, there has to be more we can do together. Let’s hold the games not because we need a break or a bright spot during a bleak period in history. Let’s hold them because they offer a unique chance for global compromise and to begin imagining how we change the way the world works.