Holding the Tokyo Olympics without spectators during COVID-19 emergency puts the IOC’s ‘supreme authority’ on full display


Two weeks before the start of the Tokyo Olympics, a state of emergency has been declared by the Japanese government in its latest attempt to contain the spread of COVID-19. It’s another setback for these Olympics, which have already been postponed for a year and will now go ahead without any spectators.

With concerns that the Tokyo Olympics could become a super-spreader event, why then are the Games even taking place?

The answer lies in the power that the International Olympic Committee – the self-proclaimed “supreme authority” for world sport – holds over the cities and countries that host the Games.

If anyone was unaware of the IOC’s use and abuse of power before 2020, events surrounding the Tokyo Olympics during the COVID-19 pandemic have shed unprecedented light on the organization’s iron grip over host cities and countries.

Since early 2020, IOC president Thomas Bach and fellow veteran IOC members John Coatea (chair of Tokyo Co-ordination Commission, the main liaison between the IOC and Tokyo organizers) and Richard Pound have been the dominant voices of the committee. Their statements on the postponement or potential cancellation of the Tokyo Games reflect denial, hubris and self-congratulatory rhetoric.

The Tokyo Olympics as “the light at the end of the tunnel” has been one of Bach’s favourites platitudes, while boosters’ references to a “post-corona world” illustrate the same unfounded optimism.

On the question of contingency plans in the event Tokyo needed to cancel the Games, Coates flatly stated last year that there was “no Plan B”. Bach spread the same message earlier this year.

Free speech?

Criticism from Olympic “insiders” is both rare and noteworthy.

In June, Japanese Olympic Committee member Kaori Yamaguchi claimed Tokyo had been “cornered” into proceeding. She was critical of the IOC for appearing “to think it could steamroll over the wishes of the Japanese public,” given that about 80 per cent of people wanted the Games postponed again or cancelled.

At the beginning of the pandemic — when the IOC was still suggesting the Tokyo Games would start as scheduled in July 2020 — Hayley Wickenheiser, a member of the IOC Athletes’ Commission, called for postponement. She received a speedy rebuke from an IOC official, stating that it was “a pity” she had posted her thoughts “without asking the IOC first.”

“I didn’t know free speech had to go through the IOC,” she fired back.


Attempts to muzzle athletes, as well as journalists and academics critical of the Olympic industry, are commonplace. Athletes are not allowed to engage in podium or on-field political protests — and some are contractually bound by their international federations’ code of ethics to refrain from making “adverse comments” on executive decisions.

Similarly, athletes involved in sport-related disputes with national or international sports organizations, or with anti-doping agencies, cannot use the judicial systems of their home countries. Their contracts require them to submit appeals exclusively to the Court of Arbitration for Sport, a tribunal that has come under frequent criticism for its links to the IOC and for inconsistencies in its decisions.

The muzzling of free speech and freedom of assembly extends beyond athletes to residents of host countries and international visitors. The Olympic Charter overrides freedoms that are universally accepted in democracies by prohibiting protests in or near Olympic venues. These areas become de facto IOC territory for the duration of the Games.

Silencing ‘naysayers’

I have first-hand experience of what happens to those who speak up against the Olympics, all providing invaluable material for my subsequent research on the Olympic industry.

My hometown of Toronto has mounted two failed Olympic bids: one for the 1996 Games and the other for 2008. In 1998, I became a member of Toronto’s anti-Olympic group, Bread Not Circuses (BNC).

Toronto newspapers were official bid sponsors and senior media executives were members of Toronto’s bid committee. BNC learned that one newspaper had an unofficial policy of rejecting any letters from our group. We were removed from a televised public forum on the bid because bid leaders refused to be on the same platform as our members.

In 2001, the IOC sent a team to Toronto to inspect its bid preparations. Our group was initially prevented from attending a meeting with the IOC. It was part of the bid committee’s transparent attempt to limit the inspection team’s exposure to “naysayers,” as the local press routinely labelled us. In the end, Bread Not Circuses was blamed (or credited, from our perspective) for “derailing the bid.”

Since then, anti-Olympic and Olympic watchdog groups have proliferated and a number of bid cities have held referendums — democratizing trends that Bach considers inappropriate and unnecessary. The situation facing Tokyo today demonstrates the vital need for critical voices to be heard.

Tokyo countermeasures

Despite IOC claims that athletes’ safety in Tokyo is a priority, COVID-19 countermeasures were universally criticized by medical experts and athlete advocacy organizations.

Most significant was the failure to provide adequate protection for athletes, even adding to their contracts a mandatory waiver absolving the IOC of responsibility if they contracted COVID-19 or suffered any other “serious bodily harm or even death.”

The IOC’s power even extends to the World Health Organization. Dr. Mike Ryan, the WHO’s chief of emergencies, explained at the beginning of the pandemic that it was not the WHO’s role “to call off – or not call off” the Olympics, but merely to provide “technical advice.”

In May 2021, Ryan praised the pandemic guidelines and organisers’ “very, very systematic risk management approach.” His comments were unsurprising given that the WHO was a partner in the task force which prepared the guidelines.

The cost of cancellation

The host city contract for every Olympics states the IOC is the only party empowered to postpone or cancel the event. The contract has a weak “force majeure” clause that states “if the IOC has reasonable grounds to believe, in its sole discretion, that the safety of participants… would be seriously threatened or jeopardised for any reason whatsoever.”

If the IOC terminates the contract, the city, the host National Olympic Committee and the organizing committee all waive any claim and right to “damages, or other compensation or remedy.”

A cancelled Olympic Games would leave Tokyo liable for billions of dollars — one estimate puts the cancellation costs at US $17 billion. But as some experts have pointed out, “the economic loss would be much greater” if the Tokyo Games turn into a super-spreader event.

The emergency declaration represents one small step towards protecting Tokyo’s citizens, but does nothing towards safeguarding the tens of thousands of athletes and officials who will arrive in the city to participate in the circus maximus that is the Olympic Games.

Author Bio: Helen Jefferson Lenskyj is Professor Emerita of Sociology and Equity Studies in Education at the University of Toronto