Jul 9, 2021 - Sports

An Olympic fiasco

Shadow fan in stadium

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

The Olympics will be held without spectators after Tokyo declared its fourth state of emergency less than three weeks after lifting its third.

The state of play: The Games begin two weeks from today, and these last-minute changes impact 15,000+ athletes, 50,000+ officials, 70,000+ volunteers and countless others as they prepare for the Games.

  • Athletes will now be in empty venues during the biggest moments of their lives. They were already prepared for family to be absent, but at least limited fans would have approximated a normal environment.
  • Broadcasters must adjust production plans. Will the now-empty stands affect camera positioning? What about acoustics?
  • Staffers could be reshuffled or cut loose entirely.
  • Sponsors are admitting the Games are a sunk cost and canceling or scaling back activations now that fans won't be there, per Reuters.
  • Some reporters are landing in Tokyo without knowing if they can enter the country. Others, like Axios' Ina Fried, are spending hours each day in "terrible computer systems" trying to submit detailed activity plans for approval before they arrive.
  • The torch relay will continue, but on an altered trajectory, with remaining legs completed either virtually or on private roads.
Empty train in Tokyo
A near-empty train carriage in Tokyo on Thursday. Photo: Carl Court/Getty Images

The big picture: This all feels very 2020, when the return of sports necessitated extraordinary measures and the "bubble" concept was born.

  • Those isolated environments were the only way forward last year. But with cases falling and vaccines becoming available, empty venues have mostly become a thing of the past.
  • And yet this month, the world's biggest sporting event will be held in a bubble, in a country where just 15% of residents are fully vaccinated.

Looking ahead: While the Games may still end up captivating TV audiences, the on-the-ground experience in Tokyo is going to be bizarre.

  • Athletes will be tested daily upon arrival and will be forced to withdraw if they test positive once the Games are underway.
  • Most aren't in Tokyo yet, but at least three athletes have already tested positive and been put in isolation since getting there.

The bottom line: Organizers had an extra year to plan for the strangest Olympics in history. But here we are, 14 days out, and they appear to be doing so by the seat of their pants.

Go deeper