Risking Coubertin’s Vision: Japan and the International Olympic Committee

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Akio Matsumura

What did you take away from the Sochi Olympics? Was it the dazzling, digitized opening ceremony? The fantastic hockey? A heartbreaking ski crash? Whichever moments you choose to remember, hundreds of millions of others – proud of their athletes, proud of their countries – will select their own after yesterday’s closing ceremony.  Above all, the Olympic Games stir within us a sense of national pride and connect us with an international awe.

The International Olympic Committee, which oversees all Olympic activities, is responsible for sustaining this sense of wonder every two years.  Their roles are rather straightforward. Among them are to “encourage and support the promotion of ethics in sport…” and to “encourage and support measures protecting the health of athletes.” Pierre de Coubertin, the father of the modern Olympic Games, was a renowned humanist, interested in competition and education as promoters of peace.

“The important thing in life is not the triumph but the struggle, the essential thing is not to have conquered but to have fought well.” – Pierre de Coubertin

Recent decades have brought the Games new types of peaks and nadirs. The opening ceremony in Beijing comes to mind as a triumph, the three bombs and resulting casualties at the Atlanta Games as a tragedy. Terrorism has haunted the games for longer than that, but its specter seems ever more threatening at large international events, especially after the 2013 Boston Marathon.  In the past 13 years almost all countries have taken strides to mitigate the risk of terrorism or and as individuals we are more aware of the threat.

Japan will face additional risks in 2020 when Tokyo will host the Summer Olympics. Prime Minister Abe assured former IOC  president Jacques Rogge and the rest of the Olympic Committee that Japan is a set of safe hands. The Games, he said, will boost the morale and economy of a Japan on its back after the March 11, 2011, earthquake that caused the nuclear disaster at Fukushima.

I agree that the event will bring hope and money to a recovering nation, but it will also bring attention and world class athletes not far south of Fukushima prefecture – an area still grappling with radiation exposure and the security of nuclear waste from the accident. The progress of Japan’s nuclear recovery — and its possible effects on the health of our athletes — must be a top priority for the International Olympic Committee.

The risks of (1) a violent act like terrorism and (2) a nuclear accident and radiation exposure are different animals and the IOC must consider them separately. But consider them they must. To further elaborate on these points I sought the opinion of several professionals from different fields:

Scott Jones, Ph.D., is a retired career naval officer. He was qualified as a nuclear weapons delivery pilot and served in the Korean and Vietnam Wars:

In contrast to the tactility of military preparation, there is no such stimulation of the senses by silent, odorless and invisible radiation. Pre-deployment simulation of battle is dangerously realistic but pays off when the enemy is engaged and threat of death is intimate. Preparation to engage the threat of nuclear radiation flowing from a damaged reactor complex hundreds of kilometers distant is completely intellectual. It is a significant psychological challenge that can only be met with scientific and medical knowledge of the consequences of exposure, and the trust in officials with responsibility to accurately measure, and report radiation levels, and to implement preplanned evacuation orders. If such plans have not been developed and made public, the critical component of trust does not exist.

Dr. Helen Caldicott, is a pediatrician specializing in cystic fibrosis and the founding president of Physicians for Social Responsibility, which as part of a larger group was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1985. In early 2014 she sent a letter to IOC President Thomas Bach and the executive board members urging them to assemble an independent team of biomedical experts to assess this risk:

Parts of Tokyo itself are radioactively contaminated as a result of the fallout from the Fukushima Daiichi accident almost three years ago. Samples collected randomly from apartments, moss growing on roofs and soil from streets has been tested for various radioactive elements and has been found to be very radioactive.  This means that the athletes will be subjected to inhaling or ingesting radioactive dust emitting alpha, beta and/or gamma radiation, as well as being exposed to gamma radiation (like x-rays) emanating from contamination in the soil and on the streets.
Much of the food sold in Tokyo is contaminated with radioactive pollutants, having been grown in Fukushima prefecture at the encouragement of the Japanese government. It is impossible to taste or smell radioactive elements in food, and monitoring every item to be consumed is not practical.

Gordon Edwards, Ph.D., is president of the Canadian Coalition for Nuclear Responsibility and recipient of the 2006 Nuclear-Free Future Award:

In the case of radioactive contamination from the Fukushima disaster, we have a situation that is not politically motivated or engineered by malicious persons for a specific purpose. And it is not just a pending threat that may or may not happen, it is a real danger that already exists and that cannot be avoided by anyone. It is an unhygienic situation that confronts everyone who participates. To "courageously" disregard this risk does not in any way serve to prevent future nuclear disasters. It is not so much courage as foolhardiness to expose oneself and one's family to radioactive contamination when it is entirely unnecessary to do so.
The fundamental question is: Why is it considered advisable to hold an athletic event in an area that is known to be contaminated with man-made carcinogens? Would the Olympic organizers arrange to go into an area that is known to have an elevated level of asbestos fibers in the air?  What is the rationale behind this? If there is indeed a good reason, then one can weigh risk versus benefit. If there is no good reason, then there is increased risk with no benefit whatsoever.

Steven Starr is director of the Clinical Laboratory Science Program at the University of Missouri and a former board member of Physicians for Social Responsibility:

Tokyo was significantly irradiated by the radioactive winds that swept over mainland Japan following the triple meltdowns at Fukushima Daiichi. The soils and lands in and around Tokyo contain significant amounts of radioactivity. Radiation is invisible and the serious health consequences of exposure often do not appear until years after the exposure takes place. Thus it will be impossible to know if an exposure to Fukushima radiation was the cause of leukemia or cancer that appeared years after the games became a distant memory. Because radiation is invisible to the senses, it is very easy to pretend it is not there and not important. This is what the Japanese government is doing along with the nuclear industry. They will tell you that nuclear power is "safe" and "clean", never mind the uninhabitable radioactive exclusion zones and the 140,000 Japanese nuclear refugees who have lost their homes.

Steve Evans is president of Therapeutics Research Institute, a center focused on patient care:

Airports and events and such lend themselves to risk management to reduce the probability of terrorist attacks to much lower, acceptable levels.  In sharp contrast, Fukushima is open to events over which we have absolutely no control whatsoever. It is a case of completely unmanageable risk. We may not surrender to manageable risks if we are willing to put enough money and energy into its management. This strategy has no analogue to unmanageable risks, and if those unmanageable risks also offer the potential for enormous levels of disaster, we would seem foolhardy to take them.  

The International Olympic Committee faces pressure from Japan and other countries with nuclear energy programs to ignore the ongoing issues at Fukushima and their relevance to the 2020 Games. To disregard this aspect of the Tokyo Games is to disregard the health of the athletes and the Coubertin vision that has made the Olympics the successful, inspiring enterprise we just saw in Sochi and hope to continue to see for many years in the future.

In democracy, there is not absolute power. Like in the game Rock Paper Scissors, there is no single absolute power among the three governing partners. The outcome always depends on the opponent’s tactics.  It is of critical importance that the IOC sends an independent assessment team of biomedical experts to Tokyo early in the six years left before 2020.




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