Downtown Tokyo as officials insist the 2020 Summer Olympics will go ahead despite coronavirus

An alleyway in Tokyo is adorned with banners promoting the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. As the IOC attempts to keep the 2020 Olympics on schedule, many qualifying events have been postponed or canceled because of coronavirus..

Sally Jenkins has been writing for the sports section of the Washington Post going on 20 years. The Associated Press and the Society for Professional Journalists have named her the nation’s best sports columnist so many times (seven, combined), they will soon need to retire her number. She’s also the author or co-author of a dozen books; four of them have landed on the bestseller list of The New York Times.

Jenkins’ Post column on February 25 was titled, “We Don’t Know Whether the Coronavirus Should Affect the Olympics. We Do Know the IOC.” I always at least bookmark anything she writes, but this piece’s lead pulled me right in:

The Summer Olympics are such a crowded, sweat-dampened, close-packed and germ-ridden affair that attending them can be like hanging out inside someone’s mouth.

That’s a one-sentence advertisement for her prose — astringent, forthright, vivid, leaving no doubt as to what she thinks. Jenkins does not just entertain and inform — she’s also a potent advocate for the athletes who have enabled her career.

Sally Jenkins

Sally Jenkins

After that crackling lead sentence, Jenkins says it’s too early to argue for calling off the Tokyo Olympics, scheduled to commence in about three months, but by no means too early to ask the IOC how it intends to keep the athletes safe and healthy. So far, the IOC’s answer seems to be “trust us, we’ve got this, no need for any alarming discussion of contingency plans.” (Editor’s note: As of today (March 18), organizers of the Summer Games said they would go ahead this July as scheduled, but are discussing contingencies.)

Then Jenkins gets to her point: When the IOC says “trust us,” be worried. With so much money on the line, the Olympic Committee will be loath to even raise the prospect of postponement or cancellation, and it has a dismal record of considering the welfare of athletes. She notes, pungently:

This is not a body that anyone should trust to deal out transparent information. This is a body that specializes in authoritarian prestige branding and coverups. It has worked hand in glove with the thugocracies of China and Russia, tolerated slave labor and other human rights abuses in the construction of Olympic stadiums. It let athletes plunge into infected waterways in Rio, knowing they were environmentally dodgy and that some would be sickened, which they were.

One thing that draws me to Jenkins’ work is that she always writes like she means it. I was curious about the emotional and moral commitment that brought her to the topic, and the gnarly considerations that any columnist faces when wading into an overwrought conversation like the one we’re having about covid-19 and institutional responsibility.

What prompted you to step into the early torrent of press coverage of Covid-19 to write about the IOC and the Tokyo Olympics?
Well, experientially, if you’ve ever been, the Olympic Games is the largest petri dish in the world. It was a natural thought: Is a massive gathering the right thing to do this year?
Also, this is about the time organizers usually ramp up their rehearsal events, and it is hard to see how they can do that under the circumstances.
The quarantines and closures could seriously interfere with the run-up and preparations for the Tokyo Games, and it seemed right to get ahead of the issue and put a little heat on the IOC and the organizers to address some questions.

In writing about public health emergencies, it’s often not easy to spot the line between responsibly raising serious issues and feeding uninformed anxiety. Did that give you pause when you sat down to write this piece?
It sure did. And what also gives pause is the economic damage that could be caused by cancellation or postponement, which is potentially another kind of ailment, though not lethal. Organizers put their hearts into these things and so do the locals; they’re enormous sources of excitement and pride and you don’t want to be a killjoy.
What broke the tie for me was the knowledge that the IOC and other governing bodies have a bad habit of saying, “Come on in, the water is fine,” when they know it’s not. As in Rio, where the water was not fine. They assured athletes that open water events in Rio would be clean, KNOWING that the organizers had failed to come through on their environmental promises and that the water was virally swarming. So.
They lull the public with reassurances and professions of confidence and expertise, and thereby actually expose them. In our country, the USOC assured families it was giving their gymnast-daughters the finest medical care in the world. When in fact the USA Gymnastics doctor was a shabby little practitioner who turned out to be a serial pedophile and child pornographer. Those professions of confidence and expertise led to many, many more victims, all because there is so much money at stake that no one wants to deliver bad news or truthful cautions. It motivates coverup.
And when athletes or families try to sue, their position is, “We had no legal duty to you or your children.”
I don’t trust these entities as far as I can throw them.

A number of the governing bodies of major sports have begun grappling with the epidemic—UEFA with its Champions League soccer tournament, for example. What drew you to the Olympics situation?
Again, fundamental distrust of the dynamics.  Japan probably has $25 billion invested in building and hosting. Comcast has about $5 billion invested, contingent on commanding massive viewership in this particular time slot. Otherwise contractually it has to give back money to the advertisers.
This is not a recipe for sound decisions. They are irrational sums, and they can lead to irrational decisions.
You worry that because the IOC so fears a financial disaster, they could court another kind of disaster — a human one.
My concern is that they think, “Well, we always pull it off somehow. This will go fine.”

Was the column prompted by the Olympics being the biggest international sports event on the horizon? Or was this, at least in part, a gateway for discussing the myriad problems with the IOC?
See above. Look, the Games themselves tend to be glorious once the athletes take over, and at times even transcendental. But the IOC is fundamentally a hoarder of inordinate wealth, and the leadership is hermetically sealed in five-star hotels, and it hasn’t found the bottom of the skim pot yet. Its leaders can rationalize anything. Witness their coziness with Putin and acceptance of human rights abuses in China — letting Xi Jinping off the hook for every agreement he violates — in order to grow the profit pool. Just because all these great kids manage to scrape the grime off with their performances in the pool or on the track doesn’t excuse the dirt.
The IOC in both Beijing and Sochi put a buck ahead of human bodies. So it begs the question of judgement.

From time to time, you write a potent column standing up for athletes. I’m reminded of powerful writing you’ve done about the exploitation of NCAA football players, especially your August 2018 piece titled “Prehistoric College Football Coaches are Killing Players.” Does this advocacy spring from a specific source, or a more general sense that a sports columnist should step up for players being wronged or exploited by those who wield power?
It stems from the fact that I make my living off their sweat. For whatever reason, I feel highly, highly conscious of that.
As a sportswriter you have a front seat to the extraordinarily grueling amount of work that goes into making something look fast or graceful or easy. Elite Olympic level sport is not a healthy undertaking; it’s a to-the-very-brink exercise in pain and exhaustion and the limits of physical tolerances. The audience really doesn’t see that. But writers who are around for the daily grind do. You see the swelling, and the limping, you know? And you also see the terrible stakes for Olympic athletes who train four years for a performance that might last eight seconds. You cover a lot more failure and loss than you do great victories.
Athletes are highly ephemeral creatures. Breakable. They turn themselves so completely over to craft; they achieve such remarkable physical precision. And yet they are highly susceptible to being used — and to being used up, burned by others. So you feel protective. And you feel a duty.
If there is one thing I wish I could do as a sportswriter, it’s create a groundswell movement to restructure these organizations to give athletes more rights and self-ownership, to stop this constant preying on them by these massive financial entities in which people on the sidelines in crested blazers literally skim off their sweat. It just seems important to try to counteract that.

Who do you consider your audience?
The little voice inside my head. And my darling departed dad, who had an unbelievable ear for honest writing, and who always said, “Take the prevailing wisdom and then look at the opposite, and ask yourself if it isn’t smarter.” He wanted me to be an independent thinker and probably taught me to distrust approval from any audience. He taught me not to mind being alone on an issue. Sometimes that means you’re in just the right place. (Editor’s note: Jenkins’ father was the revered sportswriter Dan Jenkins, who passed away in 2019; she wrote about her father’s influence on her life and career in a column for the Post)

One can imagine the reaction to some of your columns in the offices of the NCAA or IOC. But do you ever hear from athletes when you write a piece like the coronavirus column?
I don’t hear much feedback from athletes. I mean, I’m pretty sure Tom Brady and LeBron James and Serena Williams and Katie Ledecky aren’t making Sally Jenkins a part of their day. Sometimes I will hear from a coach, every now and then from an owner. I can remember Jed York of the 49ers reaching out very kindly once. The NFL, given how much I have flayed their people in type at times, has always been supremely courteous and professional in terms of feedback.
I don’t think we writers matter nearly as much to athletes as they do to us. And that’s as it should be, because they’re the main actors and we’re just the witnesses.

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