The 2020 Tokyo Olympics have already begun -- a year late and quite unwisely.
The American women soccer team got blasted by Sweden, 3-0, on Wednesday in Japan, in some early tournament action, before the Opening Ceremony Friday night.
So now the Games are official – gritting their way toward the finish line, in the face of a worldwide pandemic that humans of all nationalities and political systems have been too stupid to control.
This has been evident as the International Olympic Committee and the Japanese organizers willed the Games to begin, despite another surge taking place.
Athletes are already testing positive – and this is before they were shoe-horned into a dense city, into Olympic hideaways where athletes are theoretically sequestered.
But why should the IOC and the hosts show sense when most of the world is giddy on the concept that we are back to “normal?”
I already agree with the skepticism collected by the great reporter, John Branch, in the NYT this week. Branch talked to observors around the world, who wondered if it is time to end the Olympic Games.
After covering seven Summer Games and four Winter Games, from 1984 into 2010, I was veering toward the position that the Games existed mostly because of television money, blaring commercials around the world, but costing far more than they generate for the host countries and victimized host cities – all in the name of a faux ideal.
I know I became disenchanted with the Olympics when I saw cities and entire countries disrupted by the demand for specialized Olympic facilities. After the two-week festival, the traveling circus packed its tents and moved on, it mostly left the detritus and debt behind, as documented in John Branch’s article.
My first Games were in 1984, when Los Angeles and top executive Peter Ueberroth used existing facilities in the region, producing a profit for amateur sports groups, not debts for the host region. Some other host cities tried to think of leaving a lasting upgrade – Barcelona, in 1992, for example, and to my surprise, Atlanta's downtown was upgraded by the Olympic presence -- but others just spent and spent for a 17-day jamboree.
Having said that, I must add that some parts of the Olympics were wonderful to cover – great events intriguing personalities, in special places all over the world. I always tried to keep my perspective of whether these Games had lasting value for the cities that lusted to be the host, but I do have memories of events and competitors:
In Los Angeles in 1984, I had the good luck of watching a charismatic American volleyball team, with a lanky, thoughtful star named Flo Hyman, lose the tense gold-medal match to China. For me, that one tournament was as good as any sports playoff or tournament I have covered.
My first Winter Games – Calgary, 1988 – reminded me that I don’t like being cold, so I gravitated to events with a roof over them, like figure skating….and hockey…and speed skating, with rocking music and gaudy costumes as powerful athletes whizzed around the oval track.
The Olympic ceremonies often had the air of ersatz royalty – coronations! knighthoods! weddings! – but once in a while they touched the heart, as in 1996, in Atlanta: the final carrier of the Olympic torch, on a runway high above the stadium, turned out to be Muhammad Ali, already suffering from the Parkinson’s disease that would kill him way too young. We held our breath and prayed for him, as Ali willed himself to complete his mission.
In those same Atlanta Games, in the first Olympic soccer tournament for women, epic Americans like Michelle Akers, Julie Foudy and Mia Hamm won the gold medal.
In 2002, in Salt Lake City, Sarah Hughes, not yet 17, blended talent and will in her stunning gold-medal figure-skating routine. I had written about her family, John and Amy Hughes and their five other children, good people, who lived near me on Long Island. Sarah Hughes is now a lawyer in New York City; her dad, John Hughes, a great hockey player from Cornell, passed in August of 2020.
I admit, I often slipped out of the Olympic bubble, to see how real life was going on in the host nation. At the 1998 Winter Games in the modest Japanese mountain town -- Almost Heaven, West Nagano, as I called it – I watched residents sweep overnight fluffy snow off the sidewalks. In Athens in 2004, my wife and I played hooky one day, taking the slow ferry to Hydra and swimming off the rocks. In Beijing, Chris Clarey and Jennifer 8 Lee and I visited one of the old neighborhoods – a hutong – and ate in a restaurant run by Uighurs, the persecuted ethnic minority.
But maybe my best “Olympian” moment came in 2004 when the shot-put competition was held on the grounds of the very first Olympic games in 776 BC, in the Olympia region west of Athens. To inhale that dust was a grand honor.
Since I retired at the end of 2011, I admit, I have never watched a minute of Olympics Games, Winter or Summer – too much babble, too many commercials, too much else going on. In the next few weeks, I will rely on the NYT’s great staff to provide the words and pictures --- and I hope everybody gets through without calamity.
Measuring Covid Deaths, by David Leonhardt. July 17, 2023. NYT online.
The United States has reached a milestone in the long struggle against Covid: The total number of Americans dying each day — from any cause — is no longer historically abnormal….
After three horrific years, in which Covid has killed more than one million Americans and transformed parts of daily life, the virus has turned into an ordinary illness.
The progress stems mostly from three factors:
First, about three-quarters of U.S. adults have received at least one vaccine shot.
Second, more than three-quarters of Americans have been infected with Covid, providing natural immunity from future symptoms. (About 97 percent of adults fall into at least one of those first two categories.)
Third, post-infection treatments like Paxlovid, which can reduce the severity of symptoms, became widely available last year.
“Nearly every death is preventable,” Dr. Ashish Jha, who was until recently President Biden’s top Covid adviser, told me. “We are at a point where almost everybody who’s up to date on their vaccines and gets treated if they have Covid, they rarely end up in the hospital, they almost never die.”
That is also true for most high-risk people, Jha pointed out, including older adults — like his parents, who are in their 80s — and people whose immune systems are compromised. “Even for most — not all but most —immuno-compromised people, vaccines are actually still quite effective at preventing against serious illness,” he said. “There has been a lot of bad information out there that somehow if you’re immuno-compromised that vaccines don’t work.”
That excess deaths have fallen close to zero helps make this point: If Covid were still a dire threat to large numbers of people, that would show up in the data.
One point of confusion, I think, has been the way that many Americans — including we in the media — have talked about the immuno-compromised. They are a more diverse group than casual discussion often imagines.
Most immuno-compromised people are at little additional risk from Covid — even people with serious conditions, such as multiple sclerosis or a history of many cancers. A much smaller group, such as people who have received kidney transplants or are undergoing active chemotherapy, face higher risks.
Covid’s toll, to be clear, has not fallen to zero. The C.D.C.’s main Covid webpage estimates that about 80 people per day have been dying from the virus in recent weeks, which is equal to about 1 percent of overall daily deaths.
The official number is probably an exaggeration because it includes some people who had virus when they died even though it was not the underlying cause of death. Other C.D.C. data suggests that almost one-third of official recent Covid deaths have fallen into this category. A study published in the journal Clinical Infectious Diseases came to similar conclusions.
Dr. Shira Doron, the chief infection control officer at Tufts Medicine in Massachusetts, told me that “age is clearly the most substantial risk factor.” Covid’s victims are both older and disproportionately unvaccinated. Given the politics of vaccination, the recent victims are also disproportionately
Republican and white.
Each of these deaths is a tragedy. The deaths that were preventable — because somebody had not received available vaccines and treatments — seem particularly tragic. (Here’s a Times guide to help you think about when to get your next booster shot.)
From the great Maureen Dowd:
As I write this, I’m in a deserted newsroom in The Times’s D.C. office. After working at home for two years during Covid, I was elated to get back, so I could wander around and pick up the latest scoop.
But in the last year, there has been only a smattering of people whenever I’m here, with row upon row of empty desks. Sometimes a larger group gets lured in for a meeting with a platter of bagels."
--- Dowd writes about the lost world of journalists clustered in newsrooms at all hours, smoking, drinking, gossipping, making phone calls, typing, editing.
"Putting out the paper," we called it.
Much more than nostalgia.