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The Olympic Games are more fraught with anxiety than usual. The drumbeat to cancel the Tokyo Summer Olympics gets louder every day as Japan continues its struggle with the coronavirus. And this week, there are new calls for boycotting next year's Winter Games in China. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.
TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Olympic officials must pine for that September day in 2013, when then-International Olympic Committee President Jacques Rogge ripped open the envelope, revealing the host for the 2020 Summer Games.
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JACQUES ROGGE: Tokyo.
GOLDMAN: The cheers by the Japanese delegation were just the start.
DAVID WALLECHINSKY: They were overwhelmed - the Japanese organizing committee - with applications to be volunteers, applications to have tickets.
GOLDMAN: David Wallechinsky is an Olympic historian.
WALLECHINSKY: It's not like the Japanese were grumpy about the Olympics.
GOLDMAN: But eight years on, they are really nervous. Polls continue to show a majority of Tokyo residents don't want the games in the midst of the pandemic. There are calls for cancellation by Japanese politicians and doctors, noting how COVID cases keep climbing and only around 3% of the population is vaccinated. A prominent Japanese businessman said holding the Olympics would be a suicide mission. It's a strange situation for the thousands of athletes hoping to be in Tokyo come July. Normally, Olympians are sports ambassadors, bringing the world to a host city. U.S. swimmer Anthony Ervin acknowledges that image has become much more menacing.
ANTHONY ERVIN: The foreign, potentially pestilence-carrying tourists.
GOLDMAN: Ervin has been to three Olympics and won two gold medals, and he's vaccinated. He says he empathizes with the fear in Tokyo but hopes it doesn't lead to canceling the games because he says it doesn't have to.
ERVIN: I believe in the Japanese way.
GOLDMAN: Which he thinks will have the country ready to safely accept the world's athletes by trying to vaccinate the most vulnerable citizens and implementing rigorous precautions.
ERVIN: Like, a level of rigor that the athletes don't even want to have to deal with but will do so in order to go and let it happen.
GOLDMAN: It is these games' ultimate competition - the hope and optimism of athletes against the mounting fear and pessimism in the host country. And the tension that creates won't end even if the already once-postponed Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics have successful runs because the next games up in February in China already are facing their own troubles.
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CHRIS SMITH: In granting Beijing host status for the Olympic Games, we are crowning a barbarous regime with laurels while we should be considering their abuse and genocide.
GOLDMAN: That was Representative Christopher Smith of New Jersey today during a virtual congressional hearing. It follows yesterday's call for a Beijing Olympic boycott by a coalition of Chinese minorities who allege human rights abuses by the government - abuses the U.S. has labeled as genocide. The U.S. Olympic and Paralympic Committee is against a boycott and says it only would hurt athletes, like Dan Cnossen, a 2018 gold medalist in Paralympic biathlon.
DAN CNOSSEN: Corporations may want to decide for themselves whether this is in their interest or not. But as far as an athlete boycott, I don't think that would achieve any political objective.
GOLDMAN: Historian David Wallechinsky agrees on both counts but doubts U.S. politicians will act, leaving the IOC to weather controversy surrounding the next two games and yearning for the 2024 Olympics in Paris - a safe bet, Wallechinsky says, for now.
Tom Goldman, NPR News.
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