Q & A: The Tokyo Olympic Games

GWSB professor Lisa Delpy Neirotti discusses the impact of COVID-19 and governing bodies’ rulings on the games.

Professor Lisa Delpy Neirotti at 2016 Olympic Games.
GWSB professor Lisa Delpy Neirotti at the 2016 Olympic Games in Brazil.
July 26, 2021

For more than 30 years, Olympics scholar Lisa Delpy Neirotti, director of the George Washington University School of Business program in Sport Management and associate professor of sport management, has taught courses on sport marketing, sports events management and tourism in the GWSB.

An Olympic Games scholar, she has worked at every Olympics since the games were held in Sarajevo, Bosnia (then Yugoslovia), in 1984. She became fascinated by the business side of the Olympics in 1983 as an intern at the U.S. Olympic Training Center in Colorado Springs.

In 1992, she started an elective course in sports management at GW that took students behind the scenes at the Olympic Games. The students in the class this year were unable to attend the games in Tokyo because of the pandemic. Dr. Neirotti answered questions for GW Today about this year’s Olympics in Japan:

Q: More than 100 people involved in the games this year have tested positive for COVID-19 at the games, including athletes who have had to drop out. What impact is the pandemic having on the 2021 Olympics and the performance of athletes?

A: The International Olympic Committee together with the Tokyo Olympic Organizing Committee, Tokyo government officials and global health care professionals have meticulously designed COVID-19 protocols referred to as “playbooks” for all stakeholders including athletes, officials and media. Changes include minimizing the length of stay for athletes in the Olympic Village to five days before competition and two days after their final event. The decision for no spectators impacts athletes differently as some get into a zone and block out all external noise while others rely on crowd noise to pump them up. The decision to disallow athletes who test positive for COVID-19 is unfortunate but necessary to try to contain the virus as much as possible even when asymptomatic.

Q: Athletes at the games are being tested for the coronavirus, but they haven’t been required to be vaccinated. Why didn’t the Olympic Committee or Japan require athletes to be vaccinated?

A: The IOC offered vaccines for all athletes who wanted to take the shot, but like in the United States, it is a personal choice and with 205 countries competing this is difficult to enforce.

Q: Some athletes already have taken actions such as kneeling as social protests even though International Olympic Committee rules prohibit such demonstrations. How do you expect the International Olympic Committee to respond, and do you think social protests could dampen the spirit of the games?

A: Rule 50 of the International Olympic Charter states that no kind of demonstration or political, religious or racial propaganda is permitted in Olympic venues. The IOC Athletes Commission recommended some changes that were accepted by the IOC and athletes are now able to express themselves in the media mixed-zone but the IOC and athletes alike want to preserve the field of play, especially the podium, and the Olympic Village. The intent is to keep the focus on the athletes and allow the winners to be celebrated without distractions. Within the Village, messaging around peace, equality and inclusion for all will be allowed. Wording in the Olympic Oath read at the Opening Ceremonies was also edited to reflect fair play, inclusion and equality. 

The US Olympic and Paralympic Committee (USOPC) has stated that they will not discipline athletes who express themselves at the Games but have provided recommended guidelines such as gesturing when entering the venue or when names are announced and the expression should not be in hateful manner.

Q: What kind of impact—economic and otherwise—will the lack of fans in attendance have on the Tokyo games?

A: The Tokyo Olympic Games were set to break a record in Olympic hospitality as interest in attending from spectators around the world were at an all time high.  Japan was a very attractive host country, and I hope Japan will create post-COVID “Olympic tour” packages.  The economic loss of accommodations, transportation, food and beverage, and merchandise is estimated to be $1 billion.  In terms of overall revenue, however, domestic sponsorships is the highest at $3.5 billion. 

Q: The IOC has made a number of decisions leading up to the games in Tokyo such as fining Norway’s volleyball team for wearing shorts instead of bikini bottoms, restricting the kinds of swim caps that Black women athletes can wear and lowering the point scale for performances by gymnast Simone Biles to discourage other gymnasts from attempting feats they fear might pose a risk. How unusual are these types of rulings?

A: It is important to understand that these type of decisions are made by the International Federations (IF) of each sport and not the International Olympic Committee. IFs have full control over the rules and regulations of their respective sport. With that said, IFs make decisions for what they believe are commercial reasons (e.g., bikini bottoms may increase the interest and number of television viewers), safety or fair play reasons. The IF for swimming (FINA) banned the Speedo shark suit in 2009 as it was deemed to provide an aqua dynamic advantage. In terms of the Soul Cap, historically IF representatives are white males who prefer status quo and are not so culturally sensitive. It is easier to ban, then to investigate further to see if the cap actually offers any competitive advantage or if it is more comfortable for a diverse population. I also think that if the cap was produced by FINA’s sponsor Speedo, it may have made a difference. 

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