Tokyo Olympic Media Coverage Needs To Balance A Sports Event And Potential Covid Superspreader


June 9, 2021

With the host city and nation currently battling another wave of coronavirus cases, how much should media covering the Tokyo Olympic Games focus on the public health crisis swirling around one of the world’s iconic sports mega-events?

The Games are setting up to go on as-scheduled in Japan’s capital city and other locales. Already postponed by one year because of the Covid-19 pandemic, the International Olympic Committee and local organizing committee is pressing on with the nearly $30-billion, two week-long festival of sport, culture, and education. This despite Tokyo being under a government-mandated state of emergency that will last until at least nearly one month before the Game’s opening ceremony. It is also despite the prevalence of high infection rates and very low vaccination rates across the nation, polls showing most of the population no longer wanting to host the Games, and emergence of fast-growing and highly-contagious variant strains spreading around the world.

The IOC could always decide to postpone the Games again. But that is always easier said than done and doesn’t appear likely this time around. It would probably take an unforeseen catastrophic event, rather than Covid, to get in the way of the Games taking place this year. That is because, in addition to the IOC and government officials, there is a global multitude of athletes, coaches, trainers, national delegations, sponsors, food suppliers, and broadcasters who have invested hundreds of millions of dollars and innumerable hours aimed at the two weeks in Tokyo.

Most of the media attention about the Tokyo Games has so far been centering around the public health situation in Japan. Part of that has included items ranging from updates about the IOC’s safety protocol playbooks to no foreign spectators being permitted at Olympic events to medical professionals pleading from hospital wards for the Games to be called off. But as the Games grow closer to getting underway, more attention will likely start turning toward storylines about athletes and athletic competition. Sports media will be replacing medical media. That ought not happen.

Some sports-related human interest stories will be welcomed by many people. They should be, especially given the more than a year of wall-to-wall news about all things Covid. During that span of time, sports have shown to be a key form of entertainment, with athletes often classified as essential workers. But dedicating more attention to athletic performance lends to detaching entirely from the public health issues.

There is no shortage of critical health- and safety-related questions that demand attention. What are the health, economic, social, and political impacts of vaccines and quarantines on a largely unvaccinated nation? Should vaccinations be required for any and all athletes, coaches, delegates, sponsors, suppliers, and media members planning to be in Tokyo—and, if so, which vaccines should be certified as acceptable? How should privileges afforded to athletes be regarded when they are generally at low risk of death, but from nations where Covid infections rates are running out of control, such as India, Brazil, Nepal, Argentina, Malaysia, and Peru? Will athletes really sign the waivers to release the IOC and Japan from liability if Covid makes them sick? Will athletes really stay in the Olympic sites and how vigorously will they be monitored? And will nations relying on quarantine to manage the virus really welcome home athletes and their support staff who may have been exposed to Covid by their peers?

NBC holds the media rights for the Tokyo Games to be distributed across the United States. It is part of a $7.75-billion extension that was agreed to with the IOC in 2014 and which runs through the 2032 Games. Airing the athletic competitions and athlete storylines will likely draw tens-of-millions of people to viewing more than 3-billion minutes of video across the network’s platforms. Most of those minutes are understandably certain to include more highlights of the international array of athletes rather than the Covid situation in nations from which they hail. Still, plenty of those minutes ought to be allotted to educating viewers on the latter.

During the dozen times that he led hosting Olympic Games broadcasts on NBC from 1988 to 2016, Bob Costas insisted on bringing light to relevant social issues. Many times, they were of the variety that the IOC, host nations, and their Olympic partners preferred not be broached because they touched on politics. The Zika virus outbreak around the 2016 Rio Games is a recent example. But, to Costas, it wasn’t about trying to be controversial or political—it was about aiming to be moral and responsible.

Costas took the same approach four years earlier at the 2012 London Games. The IOC was scarcely acknowledging the 40th anniversary of the “Munich Massacre,” in which members of the Israeli Olympic delegation were taken hostage and murdered by terrorists at the 1972 Summer Games. Acknowledging the reality wasn’t lost on Costas: he used a spot during the opening ceremony to speak to it, followed by seconds of silence.

The legacy of the Munich Games also has to something to suggest to what could be that of the Tokyo Games. That is, the tragedy that took place first in the Athletes’ Village and, ultimately, at a nearby airport overshadows the seven gold medals won by U.S. swimmer Mark Spitz, three golds awarded to Soviet gymnast Olga Korbut, gold won by Mary Peters in the pentathlon, U.S. versus Soviet Union men’s basketball final, or any of the other achievements that took place. And if there is any enduring image and soundbite, it is of ABC Sports broadcaster Jim McKay providing a live television update on the final condition of the athletes-turned-hostages: “They are all gone.”

Since its founding in the summer of 1894, the IOC has been insistent that Olympic Games are no place for politics. Yet it has always been conscious of the role that the Olympic movement can play in moderating the impact of politics on society. It is not for nothing that part of the reason for choosing Tokyo as host of the 1964 Summer Games was to recognize Japan’s reconstruction and reintroduction to the global community after its role as an Axis Power during World War Two.

All media outlets covering the upcoming Olympic Games have an obligation to balance portraying the sports side and the public health particulars. The entire world has been learning for more than a year that it is tough to hide from the coronavirus. It ought to be no less difficult to hide its existence and impacts on people and places with the whole world watching.

Wishful thinking, looking in the opposite direction, and denying reality won’t make Covid stay away from the Olympics. The Games might even slow down efforts to return to the “new normal.” When international sport occurs in the midst of a still-dangerous pandemic, media coverage must fully reflect that reality.

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