Yankees, Olympics, & COVID: Can Sports Win the Day?

May 19, 2021 — In 2004, Tara Kirk Sell broke the world record in the 100-meter breaststroke, earning a silver medal at the Olympics in Athens, Greece. She remembers the grueling training leading up to the games but also fondly recalls the camaraderie among the athletes. One evening in the dining hall, she says, Greek music blared out over the speakers and the sense of celebration was palpable.

Now, with the debate heating up about whether the Tokyo Olympics, postponed last year due to the pandemic, should again be canceled or postponed, Sell also sees the public health side. She’s a senior scholar at the Johns Hopkins Center for Health Security and studies pandemic preparedness. Like other public health experts, she understands the call to cancel the games. Fueling the fear over the Olympics is the recent disclosure that nine vaccinated New York Yankees team members and staff tested positive in what are being called “breakthrough” cases. If it happened to them, what might happen to vaccinated Olympians?

“From an athlete’s perspective, I would want the games to go on if they could,” Sell says. For some, it could be their last chance at winning the gold. “I think we could have the Olympics safely, but if people don’t want to have the Olympics, that changes the story. I think we also need to respect what’s going on in Japan.”

Japanese citizens, traditionally strong supporters of the Olympics, are anxious. Protests in Tokyo, with citizens marching in the streets, are ongoing. A survey released Monday found that 83% of Japanese voters believe the games should be canceled or postponed again. And, earlier this week, the Tokyo Medical Practitioners Association, with 6,000 members, urged the International Olympic Committee to cancel the games, which are scheduled to begin July 23.

Vaccination rates in Japan are extremely low. As of May 19, only 2.8% of Japan’s 126 million citizens were vaccinated, according to Reuters. COVID infections are on the rise, with 5,679 new infections reported on average each day.

Even so, the IOC is standing firm. In a posting on the IOC website May 10, president Thomas Bach says: “We will continue to be guided by scientific and medical expertise from around the world to organize safe Olympic and Paralympic Games Tokyo 2020 for everyone.” The IOC is working with the World Health Organization to manage testing, quarantines, arrival, and other measures.

On Wednesday, Bach said he was confident that 80% of athletes would be vaccinated before the start of the games, according to Reuters.

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