The World of International Organizations

Officials say Olympic safety will not be easy

Pedestrians reflected in Tokyo ads for the Summer Olympic and Paralympic Games (ARÊTE/Masaru Kamikura)

GENEVA — The heads of the International Olympic Committee and World Health Organization acknowledged on Saturday the COVID-19 pandemic makes next year’s Tokyo Summer Olympics and Paralympics unpredictable.

IOC president Thomas Bach and WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus told a news conference that they want the 2020 Summer Games, postponed until 2021, conducted safely for everybody, though they do not yet know how that can be accomplished before an effective global vaccine is developed.

“I think nobody can at this moment in time really give you a reliable answer on how the world will look like in July 2021,” Bach said. “So we have to be vigilant and we have to be patient at the same time to take the right measures to insure the safe participation of everybody in the Games.”

On March 11, WHO declared the outbreak of COVID-19 was a pandemic — the first time for a coronavirus. Less than two weeks later, the IOC and Japan announced the postponement of the Games “beyond 2020 but not later than summer 2021” to ensure they can be hosted in a way that safeguards everyone’s health.

The Games are scheduled to begin on July 23, 2021 among 11,000 athletes from more than 200 nations. Preparing adequately for them will take international cooperation in fighting the pandemic, Tedros said.

“If we do our best, especially with national unity and global solidarity, I think it’s possible. It’s in our hands,” he told reporters. “But it’s not — it’s not easy. That’s why all of us as humanity should really fight in unison to defeat COVID and leave it behind us.”

A vaccine and treatment for the virus, first detected in Wuhan, China late last year, would provide the best measure of safety. Some health experts estimate it will take at least 12 to 18 months to develop a vaccine.

Tedros told the U.N. Economic and Social Council earlier this week that WHO is working with leaders from dozens of countries to accelerate that timeframe, and there are now about seven or eight “top” candidates among the more than 100 that are being studied for a vaccine.

Pandemic sharpens importance of sport

Bach and Tedros also announced the signing of a new agreement between their international organizations  to work together to promote health through sport and physical activity. The agreement reflects WHO’s recognition that disease prevention depends in part on healthy living.

“Physical activity is one of the keys to good health and well-being,” Tedros said in a statement. The United Nations health agency estimates 25 percent of all adults and more than 80 percent of all adolescents globally are not physically active enough.

But the collaboration also stems from a desire to help people fend off noncommunicable diseases, or NCDs, mainly cancer, cardiovascular disease, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes. Physical activity helps lower blood pressure and reduce the risk of hypertension, coronary heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and some types of cancer, including breast cancer and colon cancer.

In Sept. 2018, the U.N. General Assembly called attention to NCDs by hosting a high-level meeting to boost global financing and commitments for reducing millions of premature or early deaths.

NCDs are the most common cause of death and disability worldwide, leading to about 7-in-10 deaths. Low- and middle-income countries and the poorest and most vulnerable populations worldwide are the hardest hit, according to the NCD Alliance, a Geneva-based network of organizations in 170 nations.

The IOC and WHO also agreed to work together with nations to boost the chances of keeping athletes, supporters and workers at the games healthy, and to look at additional factors such as water quality and air pollution.

“Over the last few months in the current crisis, we have all seen how important sport and physical activity are for physical and mental health. Sport can save lives,” said Bach.

The IOC also called on all governments “to include sport in their post-crisis support programs,” he added, “because of the important role of sport in the prevention of NCDs, but also of communicable diseases.”

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