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Calls to cancel Tokyo Olympics increase

After being postponed in 2020, the Tokyo Olympics are scheduled to begin in July. However, many are calling for the games to be canceled due to growing concerns that the event would be a superspreader. We hear from Olympic fencer Mariel Zagunis on how she’s been preparing after last year’s postponement. We’re also joined by Jules Boykoff, former Olympic athlete and political scientist, on why he thinks the Tokyo Olympics should be canceled.

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. Mariel Zagunis is a fencer from Beaverton. She’s competed in four Olympic games and has won two gold medals. She wants another medal. We last talked to Zagunis in April of 2020. That was soon after the 2020 Tokyo Games were pushed back by a year. They’re supposed to happen this July but Japan is coming off of its fourth wave of Covid 19 cases, which has led some people to call for the games to simply be cancelled. We’re going to hear one such voice in a few minutes, but we start once again with Zagunis to hear what the last year has been like for an Olympic athlete in search of Olympics, Mariel Zagunis, welcome back to Think Out Loud.

Mariel Zagunis: Hi, thank you for having me back.

Dave Miller: What would a normal year be like in the lead up to a “normal olympics”? If we were, you know, a few months away from a regular old Olympic games, what would your life have been like for the last couple of months?

Mariel Zagunis: Oh my goodness, so different. I’ll tell you that. I mean nobody has to disagree with that, that life would be so much different if none of this Covid stuff was happening, but in a normal year for me a normal season, especially leading up to the Olympic games, it’s obviously very intense training. A lot of international competitions. Our season consists of nine international competitions. The latest one being usually in July sometime right before the Olympics actually happen. And then you cap it off with going to the Olympics and competing on the world stage. So it looks very different this year. Since the 16 months leading up to Tokyo, I will have competed once internationally, which was already back in March, so it definitely is a lot different this time around and different from any of the previous four that I’ve gone through.

Dave Miller: At what point did you know for sure? To the extent that we can even say for sure right now. But what your schedule was going to be, I imagine that as an elite level athlete, you have all kinds of calendars with all kinds of plans normally. So how much certainty have you had about when things would even be happening?

Mariel Zagunis: Yeah, that’s a really good question. And actually the answer to that is very little certainty and I think that’s been one of the hardest challenges these past 14 months with Covid and things being cancelled and postponed is that things were always changing and always happening and then not happening even the Olympics. And so for an athlete it’s very difficult to train to train and prepare and even get motivated, to be honest with you, when it’s like, okay, we’re competing in October. Oh no, wait, we’re competing in December. Oh wait, it might be February, but that’s a big maybe. And so, all throughout that, my gym has been closed. You can’t travel, you can’t have any other type of local competitions because of the restrictions. So everything has been just up in the air. And let’s see, I guess they made the announcement about four or five weeks ago that there will be no more international competitions and it was only about a week and a half to two weeks ago that we finally finalized our final couple of 10, 12 weeks with some training camps and things. So it’s been really hard. Especially like when normally when you’re like okay, I’m going to the Olympics, you basically have like every day of the next four years planned out. And that was certainly not the case.

Dave Miller: Can you be in top shape or close to the top shape if you’re not regularly going against other world class fencers?

Mariel Zagunis: That’s a really good question too, because that was one of the big disappointments when they announced that there was going to be no international competitions because especially leading up to the games, you want to kind of feel other opponents out, you want to see where you’re at, you want to see kind of where your level is, where your mind is and to not have that, it is definitely a big guessing game as to where you actually stand. But I think one of the biggest things for me having this Tokyo be my fifth Olympics is my experience, I’ve been through it before, I’ve had to overcome obstacles before, I’ve had to deal with uncertainties, injuries, all of that stuff before, so I think that if I can just make my mind a steel trap and base it off what I know and what I’ve learned in every you know, drop of sweat that I’ve put into this past 26 years of fencing will really help carry me through in these uncertain times of what the games are actually going to be like and who I’m going to come up against and just know that I’ve been here before, I have won gold before and I can do it again under even unprecedented circumstances.

Dave Miller: What has training been like then? And how solitary is it?

Mariel Zagunis: Yeah, it’s been really difficult to be honest with you. As you can imagine fencing, you can do so much on your own, but there’s only so much that you can do on your own because you need to have people to train against. So for my club to be closed last year from March until about April and then we’re open for a time, but then we were closed about mid November to the beginning of February. So to look at that in terms of like, am I doing enough? Can I do enough? I just was doing everything that I can, that I could at the time and I was keeping up my cross training just to make sure that my body was holding together and really just making the most of the hours that I do have in the fencing gym and that might be more, might be less compared to people abroad or even my teammates who are living in other states. But again, I’m just trying to keep a most positive attitude and make the most of every hour that I can be in the gym holding a saber and perfecting my skills.

Dave Miller: As I mentioned, we’re talking in just a few minutes with a political scientist and also a former professional soccer player who has argued in a recent Op Ed in the New York Times that the games could be a super spreader event and should be canceled. He’s not the only one making this argument. This is obviously out there right now. What goes through your mind when you hear people saying that sadly because of Covid and because of the current situation in Japan, the games just shouldn’t go forward.

Mariel Zagunis: Yeah, there’s been a lot of obviously, arguments about that and I try to not get too emotionally involved because this past 14 months and then of course the next couple months leading up to Tokyo have been such a roller coaster of it’s happening, it’s not happening, should it happen? will it happen? And that’s a really difficult thing to be focused on when you’re, the eye on the prize is not if it’s going to happen, but showing up and being ready when it does, and I think the best attitude that I can take right now is to prepare as if it is happening. So if it does and hopefully when it does, I can go there and be prepared to the best of my ability rather than kind of being like looking at the reality of the situation and thinking that it’s not going to happen and then not being prepared if it does happen to go through and ultimately, it’s completely out of my control. The only thing I can do is control my preparation and my own  mental outlook on it, my emotional outlook on it, and if it happens, it happens, and I’ll be ready. And if it doesn’t, of course, that will be a big disappointment, but I’m putting full trust and faith in the people who are organizing it, that they’ll do it in a safe way. I hope the last thing I would want was for it to be a super spreader, and it does feel, you know, selfish at times to be like, yes, this has to happen, but first and foremost, I want it to make sense. If it doesn’t make sense and it’s not going to be safe, then I would, of course, completely support that decision.

Dave Miller: Am I right that you’re going to be 39 years old in 2024?

Mariel Zagunis: Oh yeah, actually you’re right.

Dave Miller: Is that an age, just to skip ahead three years from now, do you plan to still be fencing at the international level at the age of 39? I mean the reason I’m asking and maybe it’s sort of obvious or or would this be no matter what, your last olympics?

Mariel Zagunis: Oh no, I’m not ruling anything out. I’m definitely not ruling anything out and especially, just looking towards the future and if Tokyo happens or if it happens it doesn’t happen or if it happens and it’s just like not the most ideal circumstances, of course you want to go out on a high note. You know what I mean? Whether it’s Covid related or not, based on how it goes for me in Tokyo, I’m not ruling Paris out, I’m definitely not. Five years is a long time to wait in between games, but then you look on the flip side and three years is really not a lot of time at all, so I’m not ruling anything out. But of course I’m always concentrating on one thing at a time and right now that’s this summer, getting through that, staying healthy, coming home with some hardware and then reassessing for Paris, but it’s definitely on the table,

Dave Miller: Mariel Zagunis. Good luck to you. Thanks very much for joining us, once again.

Mariel Zagunis: Thank you very much.

Dave Miller: Mariel Zagunis is a two time Olympic champion fencer who lives in Beaverton. We’re talking right now about the Olympics. The 2020 Summer Games in Tokyo were postponed by a year because of the pandemic. They’re scheduled to happen right now in July.  Jules Boykoff joins us now. He’s a professional political scientist, he’s a professor of political science at Pacific University and the author of the book ‘NOlympians’. He wrote a recent Op Ed in the New York Times entitled “A Sports Event Shouldn’t Be a Super Spreader, Cancel the Olympics”. Jules Boykoff, welcome back to Think Out Loud.

Jules Boykoff: Thanks, Dave.

Dave Miller: Before we get to your Op Ed. I’m curious what what stands out to you and what you heard from Mariel Zagunis and I can imagine that there are literally thousands of athletes like her all over the world right now who might say the same thing, You know: what I’m focusing on is my sport, what I can do and if the IOC says come, I will come. What’s your response?

Jules Boykoff: Yeah, I very much respect where she’s coming from. After all, uncertainty can be so corrosive on an athlete’s mind and she’s handling it, in my opinion, in just the right way. And also being open to the possibility that if it is in fact cancelled, that she just needs to move on. That is very difficult. As a former high level athlete myself, I can appreciate how difficult the situation is for athletes. I mean a cancelled Olympics would be devastating. And arguing for cancellation brings me no joy when I think about athletes like Mariel Zagunis and others and all they’ve done to try to achieve their Olympic dreams.I think that no matter what happens, but especially if the Olympics get canceled, that the International Olympic Committee and those who run that committee need to put more money, shovel funds into increasing mental health support and counselling for athletes. I’ve been saying that for a long time. The International Olympic Committee likes to talk about their slogan ‘athletes first’, they might get a chance to actually show that it means something after these Olympics if they’re canceled.

Dave Miller: Why did you call for the games to be canceled? What specifically concerns you most?

Jules Boykoff: Well I stand with medical officials in Japan and across the world who are clamoring for the Olympics to be cancelled. I’m standing with 83% of the population in Japan that do not want the Olympics to happen this summer, 83%. That’s unparalleled in the political history of the Olympics. Why are people so concerned? Less than 3% of the population in Japan is fully vaccinated right now. They’re in the midst of a 4th wave of Coronavirus. The United States State Department just issued Level 4 travel advisories for visiting Japan. That’s the highest level of alert that you can get. A Japanese CEO of a leading E-commerce firm said holding the games during a pandemic is “a suicide mission”. And so I respect the wishes of those in Japan who are extremely concerned that having 11,000 athletes from around the world as well as another 70,000 or so in support staff enter their country from 200 places around the world, none of whom are required to be vaccinated, none of whom are required to be quarantined and then to have them in country could be extremely dangerous. And so I stand for global health and I think this could be an actual moment of solidarity for global health were the Olympics to be cancelled.

Dave Miller: How much do we know about the vaccination efforts or vaccination rates of those athletes or support staff? As you noted, they’re not required to be vaccinated. Is it safe to assume that the majority of them will be vaccinated?

Jules Boykoff: I’ve seen conflicting numbers on this. The International Olympic Committee’s president said that 80% of the athletes in his estimation would be vaccinated. But quickly, somebody who was an actual doctor and involved in epidemiology asked where his evidence came from and we haven’t seen any. So, you know, I think a fair majority probably will be vaccinated, but not all of them will. And that’s just the reality of the situation. That’s why we’ve seen doctors across Tokyo and Japan wondering aloud if the actual legacy of the Olympic games could be an Olympic strain of the virus and that could be what the Olympics would be known for at the end of the day. That’s a horrifying prospect. And let’s not forget, Dave, we’re talking about a wholly optional sporting spectacle here, not some essential service to humanity. I mean, the athletes are amazing to behold, no question about it. And I think this summer is shaping up to be really interesting because you have all these athletes that are fired up about politics, the political scientist in me is pretty excited. A lot of athlete activism on the horizon, standing up for black lives matter and more. We have a trans athlete, one who is qualified for the olympics, so we might see more of a positive discussion around trans athletes as trans people are being attacked unfairly around the United States right now. So there’s a lot of reasons to want these games to happen. But this is an optional sporting spectacle and for that reason, I think we need to play it safe.

Dave Miller: We’ve talked to you in the past about favelas being destroyed in Rio in advance of the Olympics, there were free speech concerns in Vancouver for the Winter Olympics. There were huge concerns about politics and human rights leading up to and during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Now we have huge Covid concerns in Tokyo. Has there been a recent iteration of the Olympic games that you didn’t have serious misgivings about?

Jules Boykoff: Unfortunately not, not in recent political history of the Olympics. There are certain trends that unfortunately come along with the games, trends like overspending, trends like the militarization of public space, like gentrification and displacement, like greenwashing which is to say arguing that you’re doing environmentally positive things but not actually following through. And one thing that’s really interesting to me about the Covid discussion that’s obviously at front of mind for most people thinking about the Olympics is a lot of these other issues have kind of been slotted to the back burner and let’s not forget, I mean, Tokyo 2020 has been a cascade of calamities from the very beginning. I mean they were only supposed to cost $7.3 billion and now they’re costing in the neighborhood of $30 billion. They’re bringing facial recognition systems to all venues. So sort of a soft introduction of what we now know is racially biased systems. They have displaced people. When I was in Tokyo in July 2019, I interviewed two women who were displaced by both the 1964 olympics and these Olympics in 2020 because of the building of the stadium and we’ve seen incredible greenwashing. One of the slogans of the Tokyo Olympics is ‘The Recovery Games, a nod to Fukushima that underwent the triple whammy disaster of the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear meltdown back in 2011. And we were told that these Olympics were going to be a way to help the region recover. Well, I traveled to that area and that is absolutely not what’s happening. And I interviewed people on the ground, everyday people there, I interviewed journalists, I interviewed elected officials and they were all concerned and in unison, telling me that, in fact, hosting the Olympics diverted resources from Fukushima. So Tokyo has sort of shown that there are serious Olympic problems that plague the games no matter what the host city. Now, in terms of your question, if you want to think of a positive example, at least one that has some positive elements, I think one is Barcelona, in 1992 where they had the private sector kick in around 33% of the budget. We haven’t really seen anything like that since. And also the fact that Barcelona was coming out of the Franco regime and there’s lots of room for growth in terms of tourism and the Olympic plans chimed with the overall development plans of the city. But since then it really has been trouble in Olympics land for all these reasons that I’ve delineated.

Dave Miller: Jules Boykoff, thanks very much for your time once again.

Jules Boykoff: Thank you, Dave.

Dave Miller: Jules Boykoff is the author of ‘NOlympians’ and a professor of political science at Pacific University. Here’s something we’re working on for a future show: Have you been riding out the pandemic alone, maybe dating on Zoom? What’s the last year been like for you and how are things changing now that restrictions are being lifted? We would love to hear from you. You can leave us a voicemail to talk about single life during the pandemic. Our number is (503) 293-1983. Our production staff includes Julie Sabatier, Elizabeth Castille, Connie Cortez and senior producer Allison Frost. Nalin Silva engineers the show. Our technical director is Steven Cray and our executive producer is Sage VanWing. Thanks very much for tuning in to Think Out Loud on OPB and KLCC this week. I’m Dave Miller. Have a safe and happy holiday weekend.

Support for Think Out Loud is provided by the Rose E Tucker Charitable Trust.

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