Tokyo 2020 might need a miracle.
After the Covid-19 pandemic forced organizers to delay the Summer Olympics last year, the Games are now set to begin in less than six months on July 23, and major questions remain as to how Japan plans to pull off what could prove to be the most complex sporting event ever held – one involving more than 11,000 athletes from more than 200 countries who must be kept safe from a virus that has infected 100 million people and killed more than 2 million.
On Wednesday, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach vowed that the event would go ahead.
“Our task is to organize Olympic Games and not to cancel Olympic Games,” he said, adding that the IOC is working “day and night” to host a safe event.
It might just be doable. The UFC and the NBA proved last year that it’s possible to safely hold a major sporting event during the pandemic, as long as those involved are willing to make some sacrifices and get creative. UFC moved all its fights to an island in Abu Dhabi, while the NBA finished its 2019-2020 season at a campus in Disney World with stringent rules to keep the virus out. Both proved successful, but those two events pale in comparison to the Summer Olympics in terms of sheer size and complexity.
The Rio de Janeiro Games in 2016 involved 11,000 athletes from 206 different countries competing in 306 different sporting events across 37 venues, all of which needed to be meticulously prepared to meet the exacting standards required of the world’s most elite athletes and the global media. More than 25,000 journalists from across the world were accredited to cover the Rio Games so fans could follow in whatever language they speak.
Organizers are now racing to determine how Tokyo can hold the event safely, especially considering much of Japan is under a state of emergency amid a third wave of infections. Authorities must figure out how to protect not only athletes but also citizens of the world’s most-populous metropolitan area, a daunting task considering Japan’s huge elderly population and its slower-than-expected rollout of coronavirus vaccines.
The Olympics organizing committee said in an interim report published in December that it would pursue a host of Covid-19 prevention measures for athletes and spectators, if the latter are even allowed.
The report, however, lacked specifics. It’s not clear what happens if one competitor tests positive or who needs to quarantine upon arrival, or who would pay for it – not all Olympic competitors are professional athletes with the budget for such an expense.
What is clear is that the Games will look incredibly different to Rio. From the opening ceremonies to the competition itself, change is coming to most of the event, save for the name – organizers chose to stick with the Tokyo 2020 moniker.
Dick Pound, the longest-serving member of the IOC – and one of its most outspoken – said he’s “confident” the Games will go ahead, and puts the likelihood of that happening at about 75%.
“I think unless some drastic changes occur, this is a manageable proposition and I hope that we’re able to pull it off,” Pound said, while adding a note of caution.
“There are no certainties in life and what might happen with the virus.”
The first major task will be preparing for an influx of so many athletes coming from all over the world.
The Australian Open just proved how challenging that can be – and that competition only involved about 250 players.
Australian authorities required all players to quarantine for two weeks, and most were allotted five hours each day to go out and train in strict bio-secure bubbles. However, any player whose flight to Australia was found to have a confirmed Covid-19 case had to undergo a 14-day quarantine ahead of their grand slam matches. That meant 72 players were not allowed to leave their hotel rooms after passengers on their flight tested positive.
Some tennis stars have expressed anger and frustration at being kept cooped up ahead of the first grand slam of the tennis season, including record eight-time Australian Open men’s singles winner Novak Djokovic. One player said athletes on board a charter flight were unaware of the policy, but Daniel Andrews, the Premier of the Australian state where the Open is held, said that tennis players were briefed on the rules before they came to the country.