Mike Wilkinson is well versed in the threat of a pandemic ahead of an Olympic Games.
With the opening of the Tokyo Olympics just more than five months away, there is rising uncertainty because of the new coronavirus – COVID-19 – that has killed more than 2,000 people in China and infected in excess of 75,000 people globally.
Wilkinson was the medical director for the 2010 Vancouver Olympic organizing committee. Organizers in Vancouver had prepared for the worst amid an H1N1 outbreak prior to the Winter Games.
“[H1N1] wasn’t quite as widespread, although there was significant fear prior to the Games, and it was almost identical timing – six months before the Games – when the outbreak occurred,” said Wilkinson, who is the Canadian team’s chief medical officer for Tokyo.
One major difference: There was a vaccine for H1N1 – or swine flu – and there is not one yet for COVID-19. Every athlete that arrived in Canada for the 2010 Olympics, Wilkinson said, was provided the vaccine, if they hadn’t already received it in their country of origin.
Fears about the swine flu cutting a swath through the Vancouver Games were never realized. Instead, a rare case of leprosy in a crew member aboard a cruise ship housing Olympic security forces, among other things, made headlines.
Panic around health and safety issues is common in the months and weeks leading into an Olympic Games. Numerous high profile athletes, including Canadian tennis player Milos Raonic, plus Rory McIlroy, Jason Day, Jordan Spieth, Vijay Singh, Simona Halep and others withdrew from the 2016 Rio Olympics citing concerns about the Zika virus.
But in the modern Olympics dating from 1896, the Games have only been cancelled during wartime. In 1980 and 84, they were held despite boycotts.
Japan has been at the centre of coronavirus news because of the stricken Diamond Princess cruise ship. A total of 624 cases of the virus so far have been linked to the ship, which sat quarantined in Tokyo Bay for two weeks.
A respected Japanese virologist said on Wednesday that if the Tokyo Olympics were tomorrow, the Games probably could not be held because of the fast-spreading virus that originated in Wuhan, China.
“We need to find the best way to have a safe Olympics,” Hitoshi Oshitani said, speaking at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan. “Right now, we don’t have an effective strategy, and I think it may be difficult to have the Olympics [now]. But by the end of July, we may be in a different situation.”
More than 11,000 athletes and many more team coaches and officials are expected at the Tokyo Olympics, which have been enjoying record ticket sales.
But viruses are a big concern at any Games. Much like a cruise ship, athletes are housed in close quarters. They eat from the same buffet spreads in the village’s dining halls and they ride on the same buses.
Members of the Canadian team, including decathlete Damian Warner and sprinter Aaron Brown, fell ill with a norovirus that spread through their hotel at the 2017 world track and field championships in London. Warner competed hours after being released from quarantine and finished a disappointing fifth. Canadian coach Richard Parkinson had to coach shot putter Brittany Crew remotely, as he was ill and quarantined in the hotel.
A major flu outbreak that affected almost 900,000 people peaked right in the middle of the 1998 Nagano Olympics. A number of athletes fell ill, including Norwegian speed-skating star Adne Sondral, who had to withdraw from the 1,000 metres days after racing to gold in the 1,500.
“One of the challenges of any major Games is that you have so many athletes, support personal, supporters coming from all over the world ... and so you have the transmission or potential transmission of various infectious agents or viruses, including influenza and norovirus, which was the problem at the world [track] championships, and was also a issue the Pan Am Games last year [in Lima],” Wilkinson said.
Wilkinson said the number of daily reported cases appears to be on the decline. There were almost 15,000 cases reported on Feb. 12, while “yesterday I think it was 1,900 new cases reported,” he said Wednesday morning from Vancouver.
The sky-high Feb. 12 number, however, reflected a change in diagnosis classification.
Wilkinson said he and other Canadian Olympic Committee officials are monitoring the situation closely with Japanese officials, the World Health Organization, Health Canada and the BC Centre for Disease Control “as to the numbers and the risk.”
Wilkinson said he’s also in contact with each team’s medical staff to distribute information about proper hygiene, precautions to take while flying etc. Wilkinson said they’re not only concerned about summer team athletes, but those in winter sports who are travelling to test events for the 2022 Beijing Olympics.
Wilkinson and a COC team will travel to Tokyo next week for a site visit, which will include local hospitals to gauge preparedness.
“It’s too early to tell when will this be over,” Wilkinson said. “So we have to watch it very, very closely.”
Canada is expected to send one of its biggest Olympic teams in history to Tokyo; Canada has qualified in eight team sports so far, one short of the record set in 1976 when Canada played host in Montreal.
Tokyo organizers and the International Olympic Committee have repeatedly said they have no contingency plans for the July 24-Aug. 9 Summer Games since the WHO declared a global health emergency last month.
Japan is scheduled to play host to 19 Olympic test events beginning next month.
Dozens of sports events in Asia have already been postponed, moved or cancelled completely, including the world indoor track and field championships, which were scheduled for next month in Nanjing, China, and the Formula 1 race in April in Shanghai.
Next month’s Tokyo Marathon, which was expected to draw about 38,000 runners, has been reduced to a field of a few dozen elite runners and wheelchair athletes in a preventative measure.