Give Olympic Athletes Vaccine Priority or Scrap Tokyo Games, Official Says

One of the International Olympic Committee's (IOC) most prominent members has warned the Tokyo Olympics face cancellation, unless athletes are granted preferential treatment and are given priority access to coronavirus vaccines.

The suggestion is likely to prove controversial, but Dick Pound, the IOC's longest-serving, argued it was the only viable option to ensure the Olympic Games go ahead.

"In Canada where we might have 300 or 400 hundred athletes—to take 300 or 400 vaccines out of several million in order to have Canada represented at an international event of this stature, character and level—I don't think there would be any kind of a public outcry about that," the Canadian said during an interview with British broadcaster Sky News on Tuesday.

"It's a decision for each country to make and there will be people saying they are jumping the queue but I think that is the most realistic way of it going ahead."

In March last year, the IOC and Tokyo's organizing committee took the unprecedented decision of postponing the games by 12 months in the wake of the coronavirus outbreak and mounting criticism of the way it handled its pandemic response.

With the exception of the two world wars, the Olympics had never been canceled or postponed since they began in their modern guise in 1896. Tokyo is now scheduled to host the opening ceremony of the Olympic Games on July 23, exactly a year on from the original date.

However, with the COVID-19 pandemic showing no signs of stopping, there are growing concerns the world's biggest sporting event may not go ahead at all. The IOC and organizers have already indicated they are considering a number of different scenarios, including the games going ahead behind closed doors or limiting access to domestic fans.

Even scaled-down plans, however, have been complicated by the discovery of new variants of COVID-19 in the U.K. and South Africa last month, which has since been reported in Japan.

While the country has fared better than many of its counterparts—as of Wednesday morning it had reported just under 260,000 cases and 3,609 deaths—local authorities have warned the situation was in danger of worsening dramatically.

Last week, Tokyo's governor Yuriko Koike said the Japanese capital faced an "explosion" of coronavirus cases.

The stark warning came just a month after IOC President Thomas Bach declared he had "full determination and confidence" the postponed Olympics would be a "great success," a claim shared by Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, who said the games would be "proof that humanity has defeated the virus."

Significantly, while the U.S., the U.K., Canada and most European Union countries have begun the rollout of coronavirus vaccines—albeit at vastly different paces—Japan isn't scheduled to begin vaccinations until next month.

Speaking to Japan's Nikkan Sports daily at the end of April, Yoshiro Mori, the president of the organizing committee, admitted the Games would be canceled if the pandemic extended into this year.

"In that case, it's canceled," Mori said when asked whether the Games could be delayed by a further 12 months, should coronavirus still be a threat in 2021.

Organizers also face public pressure amid mounting costs. According to official figures, Japan had committed 1.45 trillion yen ($13.4 billion) to organizing the Olympics, with $277 million alone spent on building a new Olympic Stadium in Tokyo.

Last month, however, organizers announced the bill had ballooned to $15.4 billion, with the lion's share of the bill to be footed by taxpayers.

Public support also appears to be waning. In June, a poll carried out by Japanese news organizations Kyodo News and Tokyo MX television channel found 51.7 percent of those surveyed believe the Games in 2021 should be postponed again or canceled altogether.

The figure rose to 63 percent in a similar poll held by public broadcaster NHK last month.

Tokyo Olympic Games logo
A man walks along a corridor past an official Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics advertisement board in the Shinjuku district of Tokyo on November 30, 2020. The Games were postponed by 12 months to July 2021 in March last year. Philip Fong/AFP/Getty