Tonight the long-delayed 2020 Summer Olympics (yes, they’re still being called the 2020 games) begin. It’s going to be a strange one. Not only are the games being played a year late, but there won’t be any fans watching.
It’s hard to say what the effect of not having people in the stands will be, though you have to think there would be one. It’s harder for teams to maintain their energy, their urgency, without fans screaming their heads off. We’ve seen that in many sports over the past year.
Even if no one will see the competitions up close and personal, there’s one group you might not think of who should be keeping a very close eye on how the games play out: college administrators.
We see some intriguing parallels between these games and what happens at the start of academic years on college campuses. Both draw a wide range of people from places. The people arrive from different cultures, different outlooks. And, in the case of this fall, that likely means the students will have widely-varied experiences in how they think about COVID and whether they’ve been vaccinated.
The early signs in Japan aren’t good. An American basketball player and an alternate on the U.S. gymnastics team have tested positive. So did Coco Gauff, the teen whose explosive rise in tennis has raised her profile well beyond die-hard fans.
A pair of South African soccer players tested positive inside the Olympic village, raising questions about IOC President Thomas Bach’s foolish guarantee that there was “zero” risk within the village. They’re unlikely to be the last. Even as the games begin, their immediate future remains difficult to predict.
There are differences, of course. The virus seems to be better contained in most of the United States than in Japan, at least for the moment. But we’ve all seen how fast that can change. There are worrying signs that areas with low vaccination rates will remain extremely vulnerable, and that the rising delta variant of the virus is more likely to break through and infect vaccinated people than its predecessors.
While the latter is worrying, there’s clear evidence that the vaccines do significantly reduce the severity of illness for those unlucky enough to be one of the breakthrough cases. The overwhelming majority of severe cases — some estimate as high as 99% — are among unvaccinated patients.
Some people coming to the Olympics have probably had less opportunity to be vaccinated and more exposure to the virus itself. The same is true of college campuses this fall. The close-quarters housing of the Olympic village is also a decent analogue for dorms. In short, the two are more alike than what it might appear.
That’s why administrators, including those at UW-Eau Claire, UW-Stout and CVTC need to be paying attention to how events play out at the Olympics as well as in the immediate aftermath of the games. It takes little imagination to see the potential for these to become a major event in spreading COVID if even a relatively small proportion of the athletes return with the virus.
The basic strategy for many schools appears to be twofold. First, offer some benefits for students who come to campus having already been vaccinated. Second, make testing and restrictions so onerous that those who haven’t yet had the shot feel like it’s a better option than putting up with the requirements for unvaccinated students.
We’re not sure that’s the best approach. The potential for stubbornness among students is legendary, after all, though on this point their elders are showing some hard-headedness of their own.
About 600 colleges and universities nationwide are requiring vaccinations. A ruling earlier this week in their favor is unlikely to be the final word the courts have on such policies.
What that means is that administrators will need to watch closely for whether there are sustained outbreaks among Olympic athletes and their communities, and study the responses. There will be lessons to be learned, if they’re willing to do so.
We are, unquestionably, in a much better position to contain outbreaks than we were a year ago. But that doesn’t mean this is over. College administrators ignore this opportunity to learn what this fall may look like at their own risk.