Cancel the Olympics due to COVID? Head of Tokyo organizing committee doesn't rule it out

TOKYO — Even as women’s soccer and softball are set to begin competition Wednesday, and the rest of the Olympics await Friday’s Opening Ceremony, the head of the Tokyo organizing committee didn’t rule out a last-moment cancellation of the Games due to surging COVID-19 cases.

Toshiro Muto sent shockwaves through the Olympics here Tuesday when he didn’t rule out scrapping this delayed and beleaguered event altogether. At a news conference, Muto was asked if the Games might still be canceled.

"We can't predict what will happen with the number of coronavirus cases," Muto said. "So we will continue discussions if there is a spike in cases.

"We have agreed that based on the coronavirus situation, we will convene five-party talks again. At this point, the coronavirus cases may rise or fall, so we will think about what we should do when the situation arises."

While Muto didn't say anything was imminent and such a move remains almost unfathomable at this point, he sure didn’t say no, either.

A number of athletes, including American tennis star Coco Gauff, basketball player Bradley Beal and alternate gymnast Kara Eaker, have already been forced out of the Games due to positive tests. There have been numerous positive cases inside the Olympic Village itself, where the majority of the 11,000 athletes live in close quarters.

The number of Games-related infections soared past 70 on Tuesday.

Toshiro Muto (left), head of the Tokyo Olympics organizing committee, didn't rule out canceling the Games even at this super-late stage. (Photo by He Changshan/Xinhua via Getty Images)
Toshiro Muto (left), head of the Tokyo Olympics organizing committee, didn't rule out canceling the Games even at this super-late stage. (Photo by He Changshan/Xinhua via Getty Images) (Xinhua News Agency via Getty Images)

Meanwhile, cases in Tokyo, while still proportionately low per capita, are up substantially week-over-week. The capital city reported 1,387 new cases on Tuesday, not a huge number, but a 67.1 percent increase from the week prior. It is the 30th consecutive day cases have been up week-over-week.

As tens of thousands of athletes, coaches, officials, administrators and media continue to descend on Tokyo, there is little reason to think the situation will immediately improve.

What Muto didn’t express is how much is too much, and at what point pulling the plug on the Games would be truly viable. The International Olympic Committee has billions on the line in global television deals.

Muto’s statement was notable because he is known for being a cautious, by-the-book administrator with ties to the local financial industries and Japan’s ruling family. While this wasn’t a promise, it was some kind of a warning sign.

Anything is possible, apparently.

The Tokyo Olympics are not popular in Japan, where vaccination rates hover around just 20 percent and the event is seen as a potential superspreader. Fans have been barred from attending, and in an effort to control outbreaks, bars have been shuttered, foreign visitors banned and restaurants are supposed to shut down by 8 p.m.

The financial impact of the Covid restrictions are widespread and have hit mom and pop stores and every day workers … all so some international sporting festival can take place.

Signs of the discord can be seen in Monday’s decision by Toyota — arguably Japan’s largest brand — to pull advertising and sponsorship of the Games inside Japan, a move that distances it from the Olympics it once wholeheartedly backed.

On Tuesday, additional Japanese companies, including Nippon Telegraph & Telephone, Fujitsu Ltd. and NEC Corp., decided against sending executives to the Opening Ceremony that will take place in a near empty, newly constructed, $1.4 billion stadium. It seems no one wants to be a part of this.

That’s still a long way from canceling the Games altogether, of course, let alone at such a late date.

Muto is correct, however, that monitoring cases and protocols is necessary. If there is an outbreak among athletes, then events, teams and competitions can be altered significantly.

Most of the athletes are young, fully vaccinated and, almost by definition, of incredible health and fitness level. The likelihood of anyone in that group suffering more than minor symptoms is low.

Yet the IOC and the Japanese government are engaged in relentless testing anyway, in part because of Japan’s low vaccination rates and public pressure to keep the Olympics from making the situation worse for everyday people.

That’s part of what Muto will be monitoring. And it is something that he knows — and he wants everyone else to know — can get much worse quite quickly.

Even cancel-the-Olympics worse, apparently.

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