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Plans For Tokyo Summer Olympics Are Moving Full Steam Ahead

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

In a little over a month, the delayed Summer Olympics are scheduled to begin in Tokyo. Organizers, athletes and the main TV broadcaster that will bring the games to U.S. viewers are all charging ahead despite continuing skepticism about holding the event while the pandemic is still a very real concern. NPR's Tom Goldman reports.

TOM GOLDMAN, BYLINE: Remember doping? The use of banned drugs and talk about it has been a constant in Olympic sports. But in the past year and a half, it fell off a radar screen dominated by the coronavirus. Well, it's back.

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CHRISTINE BRENNAN: Do you believe there will be cheaters competing at the Olympics in Tokyo?

LILLY KING: As always, unfortunately.

BRENNAN: So that's a yes.

KING: Yes.

GOLDMAN: That was a recent exchange between USA Today's Christine Brennan and swimmer Lilly King, an outspoken anti-doping advocate, at the swimming Olympic trials in Nebraska. It's as good an indication as any that the games, warts and all, are in full steam ahead mode even though Japan's vaccination rate still is less than 10% of the population and some health experts continue to warn the pandemic games are fraught with risk. Donovan Brazier is a world champion 800-meter runner for the U.S.

DONOVAN BRAZIER: Now that we're closer to it, it's easier to not think about all the what ifs because we're just so headstrong in that it's happening now.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #1: NBC Sports welcomes you to Night 4 of the U.S. Olympic swimming trials.

GOLDMAN: Brazier and Lilly King are just two of the many headstrong athletes showcased on NBC this month at the trials for prominent Olympic sports like track and field, swimming and gymnastics. It's business as usual in a very unusual time. Media reporter John Ourand of the Sports Business Journal says the skeptical narrative has some merit as to why NBC and the International Olympic Committee are pushing ahead.

JOHN OURAND: This is about money.

GOLDMAN: Ourand says two-plus weeks of live global sports in Tokyo bring in a ton of advertising money and help NBC's streaming service in the hypercompetitive streaming market. And with the IOC taking in a reported 1 billion in rights fees from NBC and other networks around the globe, Ourand says this does seem to be the fat cats getting fatter. But he says it's important to remember where the bulk of the IOC money goes - to national Olympic committees that use it to prop up often underfunded sports.

OURAND: If they don't play these games, there are unintended consequences with sports that - like archery, water polo that aren't going to get the funding and really are almost going to cease to exist in many countries, including America.

GOLDMAN: Another reason to push on is both obvious and forgotten, says former TV producer Jim Bell.

JIM BELL: The athletes, I think, are the one piece that often get overshadowed in a lot of the hand-wringing about money or corporate sponsorship.

GOLDMAN: Bell worked 12 Olympics for NBC, four of them as executive producer for games coverage.

BELL: I try to remind myself and anybody I talked to, let's not forget the athletes. This is their one chance. They're competing in these sports that, outside of the Olympics, do not get much attention.

GOLDMAN: In fact, 74% of all summer Olympians compete just once, making U.S. distance runner Jenny Simpson the exception.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTSCASTER #2: The battle for bronze is on. And it's got to be the American, Simpson, heading into third.

GOLDMAN: A bronze medal winner in the 1,500 at the 2016 Olympics, Simpson is trying to qualify for her fourth games and drawing on her sense of history to counter the concerns about Tokyo. The closest parallel, she says, was fear about the Zika virus in Brazil going into the last Summer Olympics.

JENNY SIMPSON: COVID is its own wild monster that - you don't know which direction it's going. But there are ways in which it's similar to things in the past that athletes have overcome and excelled. So this year will be no different in that way.

GOLDMAN: She and others hope, at least, as the ticking clock to the opening ceremony gets louder each day. Tom Goldman, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF SMALL BLACK SONG, "SOPHIE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.