At the end of March the International Olympic Committee (IOC) under the leadership of its President, Dr. Thomas Bach, announced that the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo/Japan would be postponed by one year due to the global COVID-19 pandemic. Yet, in view of the current situation, how will it be possible to stage the world's largest sporting event from July 23rd to August 8th, 2021? Will there be Olympic Games without spectators? How can athletes' health be safeguarded? These and other questions were explored by the ZDF sports report in a feature titled “Games in pandemic times: The Other Olympics?”, broadcasted on Sunday, July 19th, 2020.
As part of the report, ZDF editor Eike Schulz also interviewed Prof. Dr. Henning Wackerhage, head of the Chair of Sports Biology, regarding possible future scenarios concerning the organisation of the 2021 Summer Olympics.
“I believe technical solutions will be available to hold the Olympic Games in a reasonably safe manner”, Prof. Wackerhage explained on ZDF. “It is possible to test the athletes to ensure that they are not infected. If contact to others is subsequently limited, then events could still take place. However, beyond this, you also have to think about how to deal with the spectators. This is where creative minds will be needed to develop corresponding hygiene concepts. The fundamental questions are: Do we want the Olympic Games at all costs? Do we want Olympic Games that are rejected by the people of Japan and the rest of the world? Surely not! Now it is up to the Organising Committee and the IOC to convince us that the 2021 Olympic Games are not being held purely for commercial reasons. A conclusive concept must be in place to ensure that the Olympic Games are held without a significant outbreak of SARS-CoV-2 infections. Furthermore, the problems of the Olympic movement, such as doping, insufficient sustainability and a lack of popular support, must also be adequately addressed."
It may be possible that by July 2021 further technical solutions could be developed to assist in the organisation of the competition. “We have planned a research project in which we aim to measure how many droplets and aerosols are released when the so-called respiratory minute volume of athletes increases during intensive exercise”, explains the sports biologist. “This has not yet been investigated in this manner. It is important that data is collected in this field to make it possible to calculate how high the risk of infection is, for example, when athletes engage in intensive exercise in a sports hall. It would also be feasible to develop sports masks that do not hinder breathing despite intensive exertion while still reducing droplet and aerosol production. Furthermore, respiratory gases would not be breathed out into the faces of other athletes, as if from a car exhaust, so to speak. As a Technical University it is our task to find technical solutions to these kinds of problems. This is where I see an opportunity for multidisciplinary cooperation, for example with TUM engineers or medical scientists.”
According to Prof. Wackerhage, if an effective vaccine could be developed by the summer of 2021, this would of course facilitate the safe organisation of the Olympic Games: “If the vaccine were available in sufficient quantities, certain challenges or questions would no longer be a concern. However, no one can currently answer the question of whether a vaccine will be available in sufficient quantities, which is why there is still great uncertainty at present.”
According to Prof. Wackerhage, it is quite possible that the Summer Olympics could be held similar to the German Football League with its so-called “ghost games” featuring no or fewer spectators: “For the athletes, taking part in the Olympic Games is a lifelong dream. It is highly likely they would also compete and demonstrate passion for their sport even if the events were held in the form of 'ghost games'. However, it's hard to say whether the spectators would still feel that these were 'authentic' Olympic Games. However, many people initially rejected the resumption of the Bundesliga without spectators in the stadiums. But in retrospect, many people were glad that they could at least watch the matches on TV, even if fans couldn't attend the matches in person."
To conclude, Prof. Wackerhage emphasized: “We must learn to live with the virus. In sport this means understanding how high the infection risks are and determining how they can be effectively reduced. In the following step, it would then be possible to make sporting activities that can be carried out in a sufficiently safe manner feasible and to ban those where the potential risk of infection is too high for everyone involved, especially for risk groups”.