UMSL Anthropologist Susan Brownell talks Olympic postponement
Last week an Olympic record, of sorts, was set. It was the first time in the Olympics’ 124-year modern history that the games were postponed.
Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and International Olympic Committee President Thomas Bach announced the games – originally scheduled for July 24-Aug. 9 in Tokyo – would be postponed about a year due to the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Susan Brownell, professor of anthropology at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and Olympic researcher who has attended six games, noted the Olympics have been disrupted only by war in the past and the postponed games face new challenges in the face of COVID-19.
A link to the past
In 1916, the Berlin Summer Olympics were canceled due to the outbreak of World War I. More than two decades later, World War II was responsible for the cancellation of four games: the 1940 Summer Olympics, 1940 Winter Olympics, 1944 Summer Olympics and 1944 Winter Olympics.
One of those cancelations – the 1940 Summer Olympics – links the past to today. Tokyo had been scheduled to host the games, but an increasingly nationalist, militarized government changed that.
“That was an interesting fact,” Brownell said. “Japan was already going to announce its emergence as an equal among the strong nations of the world in 1940. Japan itself actually rescinded the rights to the games because the military had basically taken over the government and they had more important things to do, which was to invade east Asia.”
Of course, the situation today is much different than in 1940.
Olympics in the time of pandemic
In addition to the Olympics, Brownell’s work at UMSL has focused on China and also epidemics and pandemics. The intersection of her research interests provides her with a unique perspective on the situation.
International conflict shaped past decisions, but Brownell said this year’s postponement decision coincides with a new era of disease patterns. Increased globalization and international travel in the 21st century have led to what she describes as a “global disease ecology.” This means that an illness occurring anywhere in the world has the potential to spread across the globe.
She admitted there has been some debate among experts, but the current pandemic seems to support the idea.
“That’s what’s going on,” Brownell said. “We’ve entered a new era of global disease patterns that is unprecedented in human history, and obviously, that has an effect on global events like the Olympic Games.”
While the postponement of the Olympics due to a pandemic is unprecedented, other games have been held during serious outbreaks of disease. The 1920 Summer Olympics in Antwerp, Belgium, proceeded at the tail end of the 1918 flu pandemic. More recently, the 2016 Summer Olympics in Rio de Janeiro was held during a Zika virus epidemic, but the nature of the disease made it possible to carry on with the games.
“One thing we learned was that a mosquito-borne disease isn’t so much of an issue during an Olympic Games because they’re held in a limited space,” Brownell said. “You can do really intense mosquito control measures in the city.”
COVID-19 is a different case, though. The virus is highly contagious and can incubate for up to two weeks. It’s spread by respiratory droplets produced via breathing, coughing or sneezing. People can also catch it by touching surfaces that have been contaminated and then touching their faces. This makes large gatherings particularly effective in spreading the virus.
“What we have right now is really the worst-case scenario that experts have feared for a long time,” Brownell said.
She noted that outbreaks caused by other strains of coronavirus – SARS and MERS – as well as the slightly similar Ebola virus were controlled faster than is possible with COVID-19.
“They were so lethal that people died quickly and didn’t spread it without knowing it,” Brownell said. “That was why they were able to control it.”
However, experts worried about a less lethal coronavirus that had a chance to spread. Brownell suggested the localization of SARS in East Asia made other parts of the world complacent. Epidemiologists might have been taking it seriously, but Brownell thinks politicians and average people expected a repeat of SARS – a tragedy but one that was an ocean away.
“That was obviously just wrong,” she added.
The economics of postponement
Eventually, the International Olympic Committee made the tough decision to postpone the games, but it comes with a number of logistical challenges.
As other athletic organizations – such as the NCAA and NBA – canceled events and suspended or postponed seasons in early March, it appeared that the IOC might hold off on a similar action. Brownell said the IOC typically does everything in its power to make sure the games happen. This time, external pressure made that untenable.
“I knew that in the end it wasn’t really going to be the IOC’s decision,” she said. “They would always do everything they could to move forward, and they would only cancel or postpone if organizations bigger than them made it impossible to go forward. You’ve got nations restricting travel, and you’ve got some nations stating they won’t send athletes. It’s clear this is bigger than them, and they’ve got to adjust.”
Luckily, the IOC had been planning for such an event.
“A lot of people are talking about the huge financial loss,” Brownell said. “So I wanted to point out that after Jacques Rogge was elected IOC president in 2001, one thing that he did was to set as a goal that the IOC would have enough financial reserves to weather the cancellation of an Olympic Games.”
This was done by setting aside a portion of the IOC’s revenue, which largely comes from television broadcasting rights and sponsorship fees. The IOC only retains 10 percent of the revenues after distributing 90 percent to sports organizations worldwide, but it does not specify how much of its portion is invested in the reserve fund, which reportedly amounts to nearly $900 million.
With the economics on firm footing, the next biggest challenge will be keeping spectators and athletes safe. It’s all theoretical right now, but Brownell has some ideas about how that might be achieved.
One key issue would be international travel and navigating an influx of thousands of athletes and spectators. It could be a touchy proposition even by next summer, but Brownell said officials in Tokyo could take inspiration from countries that experienced SARS in the early 2000s.
It’s something she saw firsthand visiting China in 2009 for a research trip. It was during the H1N1 swine flu pandemic, and the government had infrastructure and protocols in place to deal with containing the disease.
Upon arrival, the temperatures of everyone on the plane were taken. Brownell was able to deplane and said she would normally have been required to quarantine, but considering her trip was only 10 days, she was allowed to do her work provided she complied with a couple of practices. She had to log her temperature every day with a clinic at Beijing Sport University and also had to keep a record of every person with whom she interacted.
Such measures could be put into place in Tokyo. While burdensome, they would make tracking any instances of COVID-19 significantly easier.
“I can already predict now that in the airport when you get off the plane and as you enter the stadium, they could have devices to take your temperature and people with a fever would be turned away,” Brownell said.
Alternatively, spectators could either be restricted or banned entirely.
The greater Tokyo metropolitan area is the most populous in the world, meaning there would be enough locals to fill the stands if COVID-19 were substantially controlled in Japan by next summer.
“If it’s a domestic audience, you have a better ability to control their disease,” Brownell said.
Brownell said it’s also conceivable that the games could be held without spectators. It might seem unrealistic for such a huge, international event, but it’s not as far-fetched as it sounds. She noted that the vast majority of Olympic revenue comes from television broadcasting rights, and events could still be televised without an audience.
“It’s not only conceivable, it’s already been happening,” she said. “There’s this huge problem at Olympic Games that the marquee tickets sell out. But there are 30 sports, and many of them don’t have much of a local following in the country where they’re held. There really are sparse audiences in the background.”
The practice of housing athletes in close quarters at the Olympic Village will surely change, too.
“It is quite common for the flu and the cold to circulate around athlete villages,” Brownell said. “That’s always been a problem. So they might have to rethink grouping all the athletes together into one place like that.”
Regardless of what adjustments are made in the future, athletes and fans are already feeling the Olympic void.
As a former track-and-field athlete and contender for the 1980 Summer Olympics, which the U.S. boycotted, Brownell sympathizes with the current crop of Olympic hopefuls.
“I think it’s a tragedy for the athletes,” she said. “Everybody knows that. That’s why the IOC is so committed to making the games happen on schedule because a lot of IOC members remember the boycotts of 1980 and 1984.”
Many Americans are also dealing with a feeling of loss as their favorite form of escapism disappears – whether it’s the Olympics or March Madness. To Brownell, COVID-19 has revealed the ingrained role sports play in our society.
“I’ve really started to question the whole idea that America is an individualistic society,” she said. “I think we have a really vibrant and important collective life. The thing I’ve noticed when you hear about all the event cancellations, you start to realize a large proportion of those events are sports events.
“I think it really does show what an important role sports play in the American mentality.”
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