In the weeks before Friday’s opening ceremony for the severely delayed 2020 Olympics, talk surrounding the global spectacle focused — rightfully, almost exclusively — on how officials and athletes would steer clear of Delta’s global rise amid a surge of COVID cases in Japan. In the month or so before the games, over 90 athletes had to drop out after testing positive for the coronavirus, while public-health officials warned of the effects they could have on the pandemic in the host country and abroad. Samuel Scarpino, a pathogen surveillance expert at the Rockefeller Foundation’s Pandemic Prevention Institute, told Wired that in a worst-case scenario the Olympics could create a “super-evolutionary event” for the virus where “a critical mass of vaccinated individuals are selecting for variants that have increased transmissibility in vaccinated individuals.” In this long-shot situation, the COVID Olympics would become an Olympics for COVID itself.
But since the games began this weekend with the first televised event — a men’s volleyball game between the U.S. and France broadcast for the early crowd at 6 a.m. Eastern — the stressful tone of coverage has largely melted away. Instead, the focus has returned to the competition itself, what New York’s Will Leitch recently called a “fortnight of mini-dramas” catered to a TV audience. Among the storylines already in play are Simone Biles dominating amid an unexpectedly close bout for women’s gymnastics gold; U.S. men’s basketball losing early and potentially often; and the first-ever U.S. gold in individual fencing for Lee Kiefer.
The reasons for the change in coverage are not shocking: With athletes (mostly) ready to push through after a lifetime of training, the networks and advertisers are hoping to salvage as much revenue as possible amid an Olympics that is proving to be a bigger financial burden than usual. For the bottom line, the games are tepid at best. While NBC sold $1.2 billion in advertising — more than the revenue from Rio in 2016 — Toyota, the largest company in Japan, pulled its Olympic-themed TV ads in the host country. And while streaming numbers were up for NBC, the TV audience for the opening ceremony slumped 37 percent compared to Rio. Closer to the action, the decision not to have fans may have cost as much as $800 million in ticket sales.
As the masks on the athletes at rest show on TV, the pandemic has not subsided in a nation with a vaccination rate under 2 percent. (One of the first events, a women’s beach volleyball match between Japan and the Czech Republic, was forfeited after at least one Czech player tested positive for the coronavirus.) But for the time being, the relatively normal broadcast — part of the sports world’s larger push through the pandemic for glory and ad dollars over the past year — could hold, at least until a star athlete or unacceptable number of unpaid amateurs test positive for the virus. Meanwhile, the pandemic is not the only variable of our increasingly chaotic lives threatening the games: As intense heat and humidity swamps Tokyo, a typhoon is moving toward the city, which has already caused some rowing events to be rescheduled.