Skip to main content
Open this photo in gallery:

On Sunday, two athletes in the Olympic Village tested positive. Another athlete who was not residing there did so as well.BEHROUZ MEHRI/AFP/Getty Images

At some point, the Tokyo Olympic organizing committee must have had a conversation about what is an acceptable level of coronavirus for the Summer Games to spread into Japan.

Was it a precise figure (very dangerous when considering any future government inquiries) or more in the way of a temperature taking? What do we do if X people write angry e-mails to their representatives or Y protesters take to the streets and start breaking windows? Is 10,000 protesters manageable? How about a million?

Whatever the measure, the tolerance limits must have been considerable. Because the Olympics aren’t here yet, but Olympic COVID-19 already is, and no one seems all that bothered.

Alternate on U.S. women’s gymnastics team tests positive for COVID-19

When the going gets tough, the pros too often don’t bother going to the Olympics

For athletes in Tokyo, an Olympics without cheering, hugs or talking at dinner will be stranger than any in history

On Sunday, two athletes in the Olympic Village tested positive (they were later identified as South African soccer players). Another athlete who was not residing there tested positive as well. Organizers did not talk about them except to say they were “non-Japanese.” The hard-to-miss message: The city is safe, for now.

The village was one of two important bulwarks. The other is Tokyo itself. One has been compromised. The other almost certainly will be soon.

Knowing that, the tabulators have taken over the emergency response. They aren’t doing anything about COVID-19. Those safety measures are already set and, to some extent, failing. All they can do now is update the figures.

In all, 55 people connected to the Olympics have tested positive since the beginning of July. Bear in mind that the majority of those coming from abroad – athletes, coaches, support staff, journalists – haven’t made it to Tokyo yet. There’s lots of room to grow.

Conspicuously missing from these announcements about new infections are the usual explanations or reassurances. For months, that’s all we got – explanations and reassurances. The most famous (soon to be infamous) was IOC president Thomas Bach’s strange assertion that the Games hold “zero” COVID-19 risk for Japan.

I’m not an actuary, but it seems to me the only way something presents zero risk is if it doesn’t exist. For instance, I’m at zero risk of dying in a dinosaur attack. But everything that exists – falling space debris, rogue waves, spontaneous combustion – presents something north of zero risk.

Poor Thomas Bach. He must have regretted that one before he’d wrapped his mouth around the ‘r’ and the ‘o’ at the end. Right now, the odds are running 4 to 1 that that utterance makes the first three grafs of his professional obituary.

But it has taught everyone around him a lesson – stop making promises. Stop talking about the plan. Stop bringing any attention to what might happen or what you’d like to happen. Just talk about what has happened and move on.

That’s created a new approach to Olympic COVID-19 messaging – what might be called a policy of resignation. All the organizers do any more is apprise people of the bare minimum of facts so that they can’t be accused later of covering anything up.

And it’s working.

Two weeks ago, the media was sporadically filled with muffled calls to cancel the Games, though few put it so plainly. Mostly, it was a lot of finger-to-chin musing: ‘Don’t you ought to think in a more perfect world that we might should cancel the Olympics?’

That was the last chance. No one with any pull is suggesting cancellation any more. If getting everyone into Japan was a fraught operation, imagine what a goonshow it would be if you had to suddenly throw them all out, all at once.

No, Tokyo is green for go, whether anyone’s happy about it or not.

As always happens right before the start of any controversial international sporting event, a collective apathy has taken hold. People accept that they can’t fight city hall and the Davos Star Chamber and Coca-Cola all at once. All you can do is give in and wait for the joy to wash over you.

(Parenthetical: if you’re thinking of putting down a popular revolt, don’t bother studying up on Lenin or Castro. Check out how the IOC has been managing it for years.)

Once Friday’s opening ceremony arrives, this is well and truly done. I don’t care if they find COVID-19 in the Olympic water fountains. That news will have to compete with adorable athlete X winning a gold and busting into tears on the podium, where he is comforted by his brother, who won bronze. One news flash has great video and the other is a bunch of numbers. So COVID-19 will lose.

It’ll lose because it’s depressing, it’s far away and people are mostly over this thing, including the ones who take it seriously. They know it’s real and it’s not going away. They just don’t want to hear about it all the time. They need a break.

That’s how the Tokyo Olympics becomes what we hoped it would be, just not in the way we’d imagined. The Games aren’t the event that signals the end of the pandemic. They’re a soporific event that lets us snooze on COVID-19 for 2½ weeks. After that, it’s back to reality.

So it would be wrong to say the plan is going awry. So far at least, this must have been the plan all along.

No one – even Thomas Bach – could have seriously believed COVID-19 wasn’t getting in. It’s got in at every other sporting event, none of which are anywhere close to as big or as international as the Olympics.

What the organizers had to do was delay that penetration until soon enough before the Games that there wasn’t enough time for the outrage to gather momentum. They did. It hasn’t. Job completed.

We are almost through the first phase of every Games – the angst of anticipation. On Friday, we switch over to Phase 2: the frenzy of the event. That will swamp all other concerns. Then it’s onto the least important phase: the hangover.

You don’t need to worry about that last one. That’s Japan’s problem. By then, the rest of the world will have lost interest in giving it any more advice on how it ought to handle this whole Olympics-in-COVID-19 thing.

Sign up for The Globe’s Olympic newsletter and follow all of the news, features and opinion in the leadup to the Summer Games in Tokyo.

Follow related authors and topics

Authors and topics you follow will be added to your personal news feed in Following.

Interact with The Globe