As virus continues to bubble up in Tokyo, our bar for measuring success of Olympics drops lower

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IOC president Thomas Bach gestures during a press conference ahead of the Tokyo Olympics. The Games forge on despite the risk of COVID-19 eliminating top athletes from competition.  (Shinji Kita/Kyodo News via AP - image credit)
IOC president Thomas Bach gestures during a press conference ahead of the Tokyo Olympics. The Games forge on despite the risk of COVID-19 eliminating top athletes from competition. (Shinji Kita/Kyodo News via AP - image credit)

This is a column by Morgan Campbell, who writes opinion for CBC Sports. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

By now, we're all aware of the financial incentives to stage the Olympics amid a resurgent coronavirus pandemic.

The price tag to hold the Games in Tokyo has swelled to a reported $15.4 billion US, with normal overruns juiced by the cost of a year-long delay, pushing the budget to more than twice its original size. That money's spent and it's not coming back. Local organizers can't recoup it through ticket sales — the pandemic has cancelled paid attendance — and there's no refund available if, as news reports speculated Tuesday, COVID-19 forces a mid-Games cancellation.

Every one of those 15 billion dollars is now what business people call a sunk cost.

Sponsors and broadcasters also expect their payoff. Before the delay, NBC had already sold a reported $1.25 billion in advertising for Olympic broadcasts. That cash doesn't flow if the Games don't happen, and you can add those financial interests to the roll call of reasons this event was always going to happen, no matter how high Tokyo's case count, or low its vaccination rate.

But on Monday, just as the International Olympic Committee tweaked its motto to read "Faster, Higher, Stronger, Together," Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga praised the games for its symbolic value, an example of unity amid a long list of depressing news stories and a pandemic that refuses to quit.

"The world is faced with great difficulties," Suga said during an IOC meeting in Tokyo this week. "We can bring success to the delivery of the Games."

Calling this set of Olympic Games successful depends on whether they unfold safely, which, in turn, depends on a flexible definition of that concept. The next three weeks will introduce us to some new sports superstars, and reacquaint us with some familiar ones, but they might also measure our ability to lower our standards.

WATCH | Bring It In previews Tokyo 2020:

Think back to March of 2020, when Rudy Gobert and a handful of other NBA players tested positive for COVID-19, and how quickly the entire sports industry entered the suspended animation. Contrast that reaction to the way we currently treat COVID-19 when it crosses over into sports — like an inconvenience and a job hazard, same as tendinitis or a thigh bruise.

Two South African soccer players test positive in the Olympic Village?

That's OK, as long as it's not the whole team.

The whole U.S. women's gymnastics team in isolation after one member tested positive?

Troubling, but we're fine as long as Simone Biles isn't actually sick.

By Tuesday morning 71 people affiliated with the Olympics had tested positive for the virus, but that rising number shouldn't trouble anyone, right? Not as long as nobody lands in the hospital, and all the events unfold on time, and sports broadcasters can supply viewers with enough live programming to fill the gap between MLB's all-star game and the start of football season.

It's all fine, right?

Isn't the positivity rate still around a tenth of a percent?

Sure, except members of Olympic delegations are thoroughly, repeatedly screened for COVID-19, and the virus keeps bubbling up anyway. Those stats should tell us how stubborn and opportunistic this virus is, and remind us we're about to spend 16 days flirting with outbreaks.

WATCH | Tokyo 2020 balances thrill of competition with fear of virus:

If you care about athletes as individuals, remind yourself that each positive case among competitors means an Olympic dream stunted. Teenage tennis phenom Coco Gauff wanted to compete in Tokyo, but she won't get to after she revealed she had contracted the virus last week. She won't even make the trip.

Product at risk

And if you're only concerned with your own entertainment, understand that eventually the virus will hit an athlete you care about, and harder than you want. We've already seen it chip away at the U.S. men's basketball team, with Bradley Beal missing the Olympics over COVID-19 and Zach LaVine in health-and-safety protocols. At one point last week the team favoured to win gold could count only six healthy players — though three more were still competing in the NBA Finals.

No need to name names as we sketch out not-too-far-fetched hypotheticals. Just realize that if athletes North American audiences consider peripheral are at risk, so are the ones we build our sleep schedules and work days around watching. If a soccer player can catch it, so can a record-setting runner. If an alternate for a high-powered gymnastics team can test positive, so can medal contenders in swimming.

So even if you don't care about the people, you care about the product. You put both at risk when you press ahead with the Olympics in a city averaging nearly 1,200 new COVID-19 cases daily. People tune into the Olympics to watch the best of the best, not the best of who's left after positive tests and contact tracing.

But it's too late to prescribe remedies.

Cancellation unlikely

On Tuesday morning, reports hit the Internet implying that the local organizing committee "wouldn't rule out" cancelling the Games if the coronavirus case count continued climbing. But the actual quote from an Olympic official illustrates the gap in intent between seriously considering an action, and simply not ruling it out.

"We can't predict what will happen with the number of coronavirus cases. So we will continue discussions if there is a spike in cases," Tokyo 2020 CEO Toshiro Muto told reporters through an interpreter. "That is all I can say at this juncture."

Granted, this is a pandemic Olympics, so almost anything could happen. Between positive tests and protocols, I can't rule out the possibility that American Samoa's Nathan Crumpton will win the men's 100 metres, even though he's 35, and didn't even crack his school's top 20 as a Princeton student, and his best sport appears to be skeleton. But if some younger, faster guys get sick, and some more land in lockdown because of protocol, we can't rule out the possibility that a part-time sprinter might run 11.20 to win gold.

But Crumpton is as likely to top the podium as the local organizers are to cancel this event over the coronavirus. Broadly possible but a long way from probable when $15 billion is already sunk, broadcasters are waiting on their ad revenue, and a worldwide audience wants content. The competition will go on, but calling it a success might depend on how low you can drop your expectations.

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