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Should The Olympics Be Canceled?

On the surface, the Olympic games would seem to be a nightmare for public health officials in the midst of fighting a pandemic. People from all around the world will be congregating in one place and then returning to four corners of the world, likely carrying the virus with them.

My kids introduced me to a game application called “Plague Inc.” a few years ago. That game has been on my mind a lot in recent weeks as the Coronavirus spread around the world.

Aside from a world map that looks a lot like what you see on the news shows showing the spread of the virus, the game also features a crawl of news stories. Some of these stories are about your fictional illness while others are unrelated. As your plague spreads, one story that comes up in almost every game deals with the cancellation of the Olympics. Now reality is mirroring entertainment as there are calls to cancel or postpone the 2020 Olympic games.

On the surface, the Olympic games would seem to be a nightmare for public health officials in the midst of fighting a pandemic. People from all around the world will be congregating in one place and then returning to four corners of the world, likely carrying the virus with them.

This year’s Olympics, to be held in Tokyo, are not slated to begin until July 24. The rub is that the runup to the Olympics begins next week with the torch run leaving Fukushima. Jules Boykoff of the New York Times notes that, in addition to Coronavirus concerns, there are apparent radiation hot spots near the site of the 2011 nuclear disaster as well.

No one knows for sure how long it will take for the Coronavirus outbreak to run its course, but there is a good possibility that it won’t be fully under control by July. Even if case numbers are leveling off by that point, there is a risk that the large numbers of travelers could spark a second wave. Boykoff cites a Swiss study that forecasts that the pandemic won’t be under control until the winter of 2020-21.

The responsible and safe thing to do would be to postpone the games, but there are significant costs associated with that course of action. Boykoff notes that Japan has spent a staggering $26 billion to prepare for the Olympics, but the costs of cancellation go beyond sunk costs of preparations. Lost revenue, particularly from the lack of television coverage, would also be massive.

If the International Olympic Committee doesn’t want to pull the trigger on canceling the Olympics four months out, they should at least scale back events that lead up to the games. In the midst of a worldwide pandemic where governments are urging people to stay home, it is irresponsible and unsafe to encourage thousands of sports fans to travel to the other side of the world.

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