A stormy 24 hours: Stars in unexpected trouble at increasingly turbulent Tokyo Olympics
Losses and missteps by Simone Biles, Naomi Osaka, Katie Ledecky and the U.S. women’s soccer and men’s basketball teams have these Olympic Games in trouble. Not only that, but with 13 days still to go in the Games, COVID-19 infections are surging in Tokyo.
These Olympic Games were always walking a tightrope, right from the beginning, teetering on the edge of disaster.
From the first positive COVID-19 test, there were fears the pandemic might land scores of athletes in quarantine, maybe wipe out an entire event like the men’s 100-meter final.
From the first explosion of fireworks over an empty stadium during the opening ceremony, there were doubts that Tokyo could generate any real buzz without fans in the seats.
But it was neither of these things that pushed the Games a big step closer to catastrophe on Tuesday night. The uncertainty that drove Simone Biles to abruptly withdraw from the women’s gymnastics team competition continued a more alarming trend.
These Olympics are losing their star power.
Biles was merely the latest marquee name to suffer misfortune in the first few days of the Games. American swimmer Katie Ledecky — another ostensible “greatest of all time” — finished second in her initial race and Japanese tennis star Naomi Osaka, whose face adorns countless billboards and television commercials in this country, was bounced from the women’s draw in the third round.
“I’m disappointed in every loss,” Osaka said, “but I feel like this one sucks more than the others.”
The list goes on.
Two-time Wimbledon champion Andy Murray of Britain withdrew from singles, deciding to give his body a rest by playing only doubles. Positive COVID tests derailed Jon Rahm of Spain, the world’s top-ranked golfer, and Bryson DeChambeau of the U.S., ranked No. 6, before the start of play.
The powerhouse U.S. women’s soccer team has looked shaky, barely escaping pool play with a 0-0 draw against Australia, and the men’s basketball team, stocked with NBA talent, hasn’t played any better.
“I think that’s a little bit of hubris if you think the Americans are supposed to just roll out the ball and win,” coach Gregg Popovich said.
So what does all this mean for the Olympics?
“It was already a very troubled Games with all sorts of issues,” said Jason Chung, an assistant professor of sports management at the University of New Haven in Connecticut. “Losing top stars from around the world doesn’t help.”
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If anything, the International Olympic Committee has seen its 17-day event become even more dependent on celebrity in recent decades, with television broadcasters paying billions in rights fees. Those broadcasters want recognizable names they can sell to the viewing public.
“That’s certainly true since the professionalization of the early 1990s,” said Victor Matheson, an economics professor who studies the business of sports at the College of the Holy Cross in Massachusetts. “It’s not hard to look back at the first men’s Dream Team being a watershed moment.”
Matheson expects to see lower television ratings for Tokyo in comparison to previous Summer Olympics in London and Rio de Janeiro. He wonders if the International Olympic Committee and local organizers are facing a perception problem they cannot solve.
“There was no chance of these Games being remembered as anything but disappointing — they were doomed from the start,” he said. “They were always going to be remembered as the Games without fans, or the Games where more athletes were disqualified by COVID tests than by doping tests.”
But just four days into competition, there is still time for a turnaround.
Speaking with reporters, Biles sounded as if she might be back for the all-around and individual events beginning later this week.
“Just a lot of different variables and I think we’re just a little stressed out,” she said, adding that “we’re going to take it a day at a time.”
Given the very personal yet very public circumstances of Biles’ withdrawal on Tuesday, Chung believes her return could become an even bigger story.
“I could imagine it bringing more viewers because of the human-interest angle,” he said. “Having someone of her magnitude and ability struggling emotionally, people might be interested to see how she weathers the storm.
“Also,” he said, “she could draw younger viewers who connect with that kind of authenticity.”
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In the days to come, the women’s soccer team and men’s basketball team could find their rhythm and reach the medals podium. Ledecky still has a number of races left and the start of track and field competition on Friday holds the promise of new stars coming to the fore.
But the city of Tokyo reported a record three-day average of 2,848 new coronavirus infections on Tuesday, with health experts warning the numbers might continue to grow. That doesn’t bode well for a massive sports event already viewed with suspicion by the public.
Even more athletes could be pulled from competition by positive COVID tests. Some of them could be big names. For these Games, things could get even worse.
After all, there are still 13 days to go.
This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.