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The Olympics are still stuck in 2020

The Olympics are still stuck in 2020


The games will go on despite the threat from COVID-19

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Photo by Kazuhiro Nogi / AFP / Getty Images

In two weeks, it’ll be 2020 again: an Olympic year, and a pandemic year, too. This year’s Olympic Games will start in July 2021, but the official logo still reads “Tokyo 2020.” The games were canceled in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic last year, but through the funhouse mirror of pandemic time, the competition is stuck back in 2020 — and COVID-19 is still threatening the games. 

Tokyo declared a state of emergency this week following a surge in COVID-19 cases, and Olympic organizers announced Thursday that no fans would be allowed at competitions in the city. The decisions were made as experts warned (again) that the games could lead to a spike in COVID-19 cases in the country. 

Japan has, so far, avoided some of the most severe impacts of the pandemic. But only around 15 percent of the population is vaccinated. The fast-spreading Delta variant will likely take over as the dominant virus in Japan by the time the games start, a new modeling study found. There are already positive cases among athletes traveling in for the games. 

Maybe, hopefully, the restrictions in place — no fans, no family members, daily tests — will work, and keep outbreaks at an arm’s length. But in an event like the Olympics, the risk isn’t only when fans and athletes gather in a stadium. It’s the swirl of activity surrounding events that can be dangerous. 

We saw that with the G7 summit in June, which may have been linked to a COVID-19 surge in Cornwall, England, where the gathering was held. The world leaders at the event wouldn’t have been the driver — they were vaccinated. But they brought security and staff to the area, and boosted activity in the hospitality and tourism industries. That’s where the cases spread. One hotel used by a visiting delegation had to close down because of a COVID-19 outbreak among staff. 

The World Health Organization also said last week that the European Championship soccer games led to new cases in Europe, driven by gatherings in bars and other travel. “We need to look much beyond just the stadiums themselves,” said Catherine Smallwood, the WHO’s senior emergency officer. 

Looking beyond the Olympic venues like Tokyo Stadium, tens of thousands of volunteers will keep the Olympics running. Most won’t be vaccinated. They won’t be in a bubble. Tens of thousands of athletes and coaches are streaming into the country. They’re not required to be vaccinated, and even though they’ll be tested regularly, tests aren’t foolproof. It’s a major risk, and one the Olympic organizers seem ready to take on behalf of the people in Japan. 

The march toward the games is marked by a sense of inertia and inevitability (instead of the normal torch rally, which was canceled because of the virus). The ball got rolling back in 2013 when Tokyo was first awarded the games. They’re gargantuan, stuffed with financial stakes for the International Olympic Committee and broadcasters, political symbolism, and contractual obligations with host cities. Despite calls to cancel, the momentum kept going forward. That pulled the spectacle and specter of 2020 through to a second year — medals and disease risk and all.

Here’s what else happened this week. 


The world is worried about the Delta virus variant. Studies show vaccines are effective against it.
It’s hard to figure out how well vaccines work once they’re used in the real world, but it seems like the COVID-19 shots still do a good job at protecting against the Delta variant. (Carl Zimmer/The New York Times)

Covid-19 Vaccine-Related Blood Clots Linked to Amino Acids in New Study
A research team may have identified a mechanism behind the rare blood clotting syndrome associated with the AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine. (Jenny Strasburg/The Wall Street Journal)

Fitbits Detect Lasting Changes After Covid-19
People who had COVID-19 and recovered had elevated resting heart rates for months, according to data collected by their Fitbits. The Fitbits also showed that people recovering from COVID-19 took longer to return to normal sleep and activity levels than people with other illnesses. (Emily Anthes/The New York Times)

Study highlights need for full Covid vaccination to protect against Delta variant
A new study shows how the variant evades the immune system. Antibodies produced by people with two shots of the vaccine, though, were able to block the virus. (Elizabeth Cooney/Stat News)


Moderna starts human trials of an mRNA-based flu shot
After the success of the mRNA COVID-19 vaccines, pharmaceutical companies like Moderna are pushing ahead with shots for other infectious diseases using the same strategy. (Nicole Wetsman/The Verge)

‘Too good to be true’: Doubts swirl around trial that saw 77% reduction in COVID-19 mortality
An experimental prostate cancer drug seemed to help COVID-19 more than any treatment so far, but experts are worried about potential issues with the clinical trial testing it. (Robert F. Service/Science)


There have been times when I broke down and cried. It was just devastating, because you leave the hospital and you come out into a community that doesn’t believe that it’s real and in what it can do.

 Jamie Swift, a nurse in Appalachia, describes caring for patients in a community that thinks COVID-19 is a hoax.

More than numbers

To the people who have received the 3.3 billion vaccine doses distributed so far — thank you.

To the more than 185,355,311 people worldwide who have tested positive, may your road to recovery be smooth.

To the families and friends of the 4,005,801 people who have died worldwide — 606,399  of those in the US — your loved ones are not forgotten.

Stay safe, everyone.