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Tokyo Olympics: ‘A ray of light at a difficult time if sport bubble can be achieved’

The Games are an international ‘beacon of hope,’ says expert involved in Summer Games

Although the debate about canceling the Tokyo Olympics because of COVID-19 concerns has continued to heat up, holding the Games could be “a ray of light at a difficult time” as long as the environment is controlled, said Dr. George Chiampas, a mass event management expert with Northwestern Medicine who will serve team USA at the Summer Games.

“We see what’s going on in India and other countries that are struggling to manage COVID-19 and the human and economic toll it’s taking,” said Chiampas, assistant professor of emergency medicine and orthopedic surgery at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine. “At the same time, we can’t lose sight of the goal and meaning of the Olympics. Even in cases of war, the Olympics was a beacon of hope. It’s about striking a balance.”

Chiampas has been the chief medical officer for U.S. Soccer (women’s and men’s) since 2014; has served as Bank of America Chicago Marathon Medical Director since 2007; and as a team physician for the Chicago Blackhawks. He will be in Tokyo during the Summer Games as a U.S. representative of FIFA’s medical committee

E-mail Kristin Samuelson at ksamuelson@northwestern.edu to set up an interview with Chiampas.

“Can they create essentially a sport bubble in an environment that’s still dealing with the pandemic? It is absolutely a challenge, but I do think it can be done, and it may be something that provides a ray of light at a difficult time,” Chiampas said. “I’ve been doing it for our U.S. women’s and men’s national soccer teams – getting them in camps here in the United States and abroad and putting together strategies to keep not only our players but our entire staff safe as they fly across the world – so I know it’s extremely challenging.

“But we also have to recognize that there are athletes around the world for whom this is their window to compete. If we can provide them that platform in a safe way, that should be everyone’s objective. 

“Again, at the same time, we must make sure we’re sensitive to what’s going on in Japan and the public health circumstances and not lose sight of that; that has to be the core. When you’re dealing with disasters, this is truly when the models that talk about public and private partnerships are critical.” 

The biggest challenge: Managing behavior

“One of the biggest challenges is behaviors and compliance amongst the population,” Chiampas said. “Some will be vaccinated; some may not be. Some take COVID seriously; others don’t. The  International Olympic Committee, Tokyo 2021 and all the national governing bodies need to ensure they set the right tone, right environment and real expectations, and then stay true to those expectations. That is going to be the most critical piece.”