The Hygiene Theatre Olympics expose Japan’s contradictory motives

·3-min read

TOKYO — At every opportunity here in the week leading up to the Olympics, journalists have pressed organizers about their COVID plan. About why the Games are happening amid a pandemic. About how the virus is already spreading in the Olympic Village and other Games-related circles.

Fortunately, in between each question at high-profile news conferences, a volunteer rushes to the microphone with a sanitizing wipe.

And upon entry, sanitizing solution squirts into our hands.

Fortunately for the athletes, interview areas are wiped down as they come and go.

All of the tens of thousands of people who arrived in Tokyo this week were told at the airport, alongside a cute graphic: “HIGH FIVE PROHIBITED”

And then, on Friday night, after the Opening Ceremony of these Hygiene Theatre Olympics, we were ushered into tight double-file lines, told to stand for dozens of minutes shoulder-to-shoulder, front-to-back, often motionless. We were crammed onto a bus, every seat filled. Then onto a shuttle, every standing space filled as well.

But don’t worry, we were headed to the main press center, where the motion-sensor hand-dryers in bathrooms were disabled earlier this week to prevent COVID spread.

(There were no paper towels.)

A worker sanitizes and cleans the Olympic beach volleyball court in between training sessions at Shiokaze Park in Tokyo. (ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)
A worker sanitizes and cleans the Olympic beach volleyball court in between training sessions at Shiokaze Park in Tokyo. (ANGELA WEISS/AFP via Getty Images)

Months ago, the CDC urged American institutions to stop this madness. Public health authorities around the world have issued similar guidance. Science has long been unequivocal, ever since a few months into the pandemic, that constant “deep cleanings” are unnecessary. That SARS-CoV-2 spreads almost exclusively via airborne and aerosolized particles expelled from our mouths. Some hang in the air. But they don’t stick on our hands, and then transfer to surfaces, and then to another person’s hands, and then into their bodies. The chances of surface transmission, the CDC said, is infinitesimal.

And yet here we are, with plastic-gloved volunteers, and transport ushers walking down bus aisles — within a couple feet of us, of course — to spray sanitizer into our hands. A trip from hotel to sports venue sometimes goes through three sanitization checkpoints.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with clean hands. And many of the measures in place — testing, masking, plastic dividers and so on — are reasonable and scientifically sound. The problem is what these contradictions expose. They’re textbook hygiene theatre. After hourslong mazes through airports and a bus ride to a transport terminal, we weren’t allowed to ride two-to-a-cab out to our hotels.

Ever since, we’ve been able to share cabs all we want.

These entire Olympics have been an exercise in public relations for Japan. For years, ever since the bid launched in 2011, they were meant to bring international prestige to the country and tourists to Tokyo for decades to come. Once COVID arrived, organizers flipped to damage control. They now have two primary motives: to appease the International Olympic Committee by staging the Games and earning the IOC billions of dollars; and to appease their own citizens by not contributing to the spread of COVID-19 throughout their country. They seem, at times, to care less about suppressing transmission and more about not being seen as responsible, all at a reasonable cost.

So, thousands of hand sanitizer dispensers? Of course.

But a couple extra busses to avoid overcrowding? Nah.

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