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Against all odds, and against better judgment, the Summer Olympics are underway in Tokyo. Delayed a year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Games faced a barrage of barriers as the opening ceremonies drew closer and closer. The International Olympic Committee found itself in the hot seat as early as May when it announced that Black Lives Matter apparel would be banned. Although the committee’s mandate barring “demonstration or political, religious, or racial propaganda” on the playing fields, medal podiums, and opening and closing ceremonies has been long-standing; it’s specific forbiddance of the slogan “Black Lives Matter” rightfully ruffled more than a few feathers. Specific consequences of violating what is officially known as “Rule 50” were not stated and the IOC’s athletes’ commission also disclosed that 70 percent of the 3,500 responses from consulting athlete groups were in support of banning the protests. The backlash went as quickly as it came and the issue seemingly died down.
However, the road has been anything but smooth ever since. Shortly after the BLM ban, the International Swimming Federation, or FINA, prohibited the use of swimming caps designed to protect natural Black hair. The body rejected Soul Caps under the premise that the caps did not fit “the natural form of the head” – a direct jab to African American swimmers whose hair tends to defy gravity. To add insult to injury, Soul Cap told the BBC that FINA told them to their “best knowledge, the athletes competing at the international events never used, neither require to use, caps of such size and configuration.” In other words, Black people don’t swim at an elite level. Tell that to Simone Manuel, Lia Neal, and the others who came before them and will come after.
Previous athletes never used specially made caps, simply because they were unavailable. The silicone caps, founded by Michael Chapman and Toks Ahmed, were designed to fit over Afros, locs, extensions, and thicker hair — The texture of Black hair. The immediate backlash still has not caused Olympic swimming’s governing body to walk back their stance even after the European Parliament added its two cents. The EU determined that the ban “leads to institutional inequalities.” Taking things a step further, the Anti-Racism and Diversity Intergroup of the EU wrote a letter to Thomas Bach and Sebastian Coe, the presidents of the IOC and World Athletics, respectively. In the letter, the IOC is accused of having “institutional structures and rules that exclude people of colour and Black women specifically.” FINA released a statement on July 2 in which it stated, “There is no restriction on ‘Soul Cap’ swimming caps for recreational and teaching purposes” and acknowledges the efforts of the company to “ensure everyone has the chance to enjoy the water.” While the statement goes on to claim that Soul Caps and similar products will be considered as part of a wider initiative “aimed at ensuring there are no barriers to participation in swimming”, FINA has gone radio silent ever since. Swimming events are already underway in Tokyo while Soul Caps remain prohibited.
The disqualifications of Black female track and field stars Sha’Carri Richardson and Brianna Rollins-McNeal further instigated the sentiments of an attack on Black female athletes. Rollins-McNeal, the reigning Olympic champion in the 100-meter hurdles, has been banned for five years, making her miss the 2021 Games in Tokyo as well as 2024 in Paris. The punishment came after the 2013 world champion was charged with tampering after missing a drug test in January and putting the wrong date on medical forms following an abortion. She contended that the “white European men” at her two disciplinary hearings tried to determine how she should have acted after her abortion. She was previously banned for a year back in 2017 when she failed to be available for drug testing on a number of occasions. While appealing the ban, the athlete was allowed to compete in the US Olympic Trials and finished second before being replaced on the team by Gabbi Cunningham. This final ruling may signal the end of the 29-year-old’s track career.
Richardson, in the infant stage of her professional career, would have been a favorite to bring home gold in the 100-meter dash before testing positive for marijuana and being hit with a 30-day ban. The ban effectively disqualified her from competing in the 100-meter race in Tokyo. As quickly as she became a media darling, the world sympathized with the precocious talent who triumphed in the Trials despite the recent death of her biological mother. Both decisions were backed by previously established rules set forth by the World Anti-Doping Agency. While some may disagree with the harsh consequences and even contend the outdated ban on marijuana, the outcomes have been set and the powers that be are very rigid when it comes to drug testing. That still did not soften the blow and several celebrities took to social media to air their grievances, while fans called for a boycott of the Games.
Still, after all of that, there remains the ugly truth that Covid-19 has not gone anywhere and spikes in cases in Tokyo, along with an abysmal vaccination rate, threatened to end the Games before they even started. A series of protocols and procedures were put into place including the banning of live spectators. But, it was still like putting a band-aid on a stab wound. All participants were required to produce two negative tests before even boarding flights to Tokyo — taken at least 96 hours and 72 hours before their departure. Once they landed, all participants had to take a saliva test and were not permitted to leave the airport without a negative result. Daily tests and temperature checks were required at the Olympic Village but the vaccination was not mandatory. Unlike the NFL, there are no additional restrictions for unvaccinated athletes. Taking a page from the NBA, the Games will take place in a bubble with travel limited to official Olympic venues.
In a TikTok, Australian athlete Tilly Kearns showed dining hall protocols for Olympic participants. The routine includes sanitizing their hands upon entry and then putting on disposable gloves before touching anything. Next, they get a dining tray that has been previously sanitized before selecting their food. When they sit down to eat, it’s at a cubicle separated from others by a glass panel. Each cubicle contains sanitizing wipes and each item or surface that the athlete will touch is wiped down. The Australian team has a rule that once the mask comes off, athletes have only 10 minutes to eat to reduce the chance of exposure. It is unclear if other teams have such rules in place. Additional measures such as clapping rather that singing or yelling during competition have been encouraged.
Even with the aforementioned policies and procedures in place, COVID has still made its presence known with several athletes seeing their Olympic dreams dashed by positive tests. As the Games surge on, so does the increase in coronavirus cases in Tokyo. On July 28, it was revealed that the host city hit a new high for daily cases. Fortunately, no athletes are among the 3,177 new cases. It was the first time in four days that no athletes tested positive. However there were 16 positive tests amongst Games personnel. While the majority of Japanese citizens were opposed to the Games being held during the pandemic, only 26 percent of the population is vaccinated.
With so many obstacles, the IOC was still determined to let the games begin. But, at what expense? There are several health, systemic, and racism issues at hand but for a country that has already suffered pandemic-related costs estimated at $6.4 trillion, $6.3 trillion, and $3.2 trillion during three shutdowns; these Games were going down – by any means necessary.