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Olympics in the time of Covid-19

Editorial

Yesterday Olympic athletes and organisers crossed off 50 days until the postponed Tokyo 2020 Olympics opens on July 23, with organising committee president Seiko Hashimoto reaffirming that the Games will go ahead. “We cannot postpone again,” she said.

Also yesterday, the head of a panel advising Japan's government on its Covid-19 response said organisers needed to explain to a sceptical public why they were pressing ahead, and that it was their responsibility to downsize its scale and strengthen coronavirus control measures as much as possible.

Today we have the exciting news that Gisborne canoe sprint racer Alicia Hoskin has been announced in the New Zealand team — nine years since our last Olympian, sprint canoeist Darryl Fitzgerald, competed at the 2012 Olympics in London where he and Steven Ferguson finished seventh in the K-2 1000m.

Tayler Reid has been nominated for the New Zealand triathlon team but not yet confirmed.

Public sympathy worldwide is with the athletes and the inspirational spectacle that the Olympics offers.

Organisers and the Japanese government have insisted that the Games can be held safely; they aim to create bubbles around the Olympic village and competition sites, to isolate participants from locals. No foreign spectators are allowed, and a decision on local spectators is expected this month.

It is worth noting that Olympic host-city contracts give the International Olympic Committee the exclusive right to call off the Games — and it is eager to go ahead. If Japan's government was to cancel unilaterally, the IOC would have the right to seek damages. Japanese officials are also said to dread the impression it would leave if Japan bailed out, while its regional rival China goes on to host the Winter Olympics in Beijing early next year.

Japan has so far avoided the worst of the pandemic, thanks in part to stringent border controls — however, more than two-thirds of its 13,200 Covid-19 deaths have come this year. The latest wave, fuelled by more transmissable variants, has strained regional health systems.

Japan's vaccination rollout has been even slower than in New Zealand, but it is ramping up now.

About 15,000 athletes and an estimated 90,000 support people from 200 countries will descend on Japan for the Olympics, which will be the most expensive Summer Games ever. Some estimates are as high as $US26 billion or more; postponing the Olympics for a year added an estimated $US2.8bn.