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Pandemic Olympiad

The Tokyo games will be an uncomfortable charade

This article is taken from the July 2021 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” The Olympic Games and thousands of the world’s best athletes find themselves stuck between two states, physically and emotionally. Just as the world’s population flits between despair and hope, so the Olympic family (as we are encouraged to call ourselves) pinballs between “this is going to happen” and “this can’t possibly happen”. Will all the training and preparation be redeemed at the most renowned sporting event on earth? Or does outright cancellation loom?

Tokyo was supposed to have hosted the Games in 1940, but the Japanese invasion of China intervened. Her solitary Games thus far were in 1964, and she was the model International Olympic Committee (IOC) host city for 2020. But as most of Asia and Europe toppled into lockdown in the late winter in 2019, the IOC stumbled. 

Unsure how deep and how far the Covid crisis could reach, even in late March the IOC encouraged Olympic athletes to keep training for the biggest event of their lives. All while some of them were living under a form of house arrest; outside exercise restricted severely and team sports all but suspended. For many athletes the experience was torturous — but in the old adage of the sports psychologist one “controls the controllables”.

The IOC and the host city of Tokyo are caught in a financial fork they made

What can an athlete normally control? Eating, sleeping, training routines, injury prevention are solidly there. But as it gets closer to competition andf the pressure mounts, thoughts jumble together — crowding in for space and attention. Things become less rigid and less easy to define. The weather, the venue, the crowd, the press, the cameras? Part of seeing the Olympic dream through to the end is the ability to ignore the distractions and focus on the performance. 

For the 2020 cohort, the psychological challenge was at a different level. What if the Olympic dream had to move by a year? What if “training” meant in your kitchen, on your balcony, with bags of sand not weights, or on a machine rather than a bike, a boat or a horse. How long could you do that for? How easy would it be to put Covid in a column marked “uncontrollable” and be able to ignore it? How can any of us ignore it?

Sir Matthew Pinsent celebrates with his gold medal after winning the Men’s Coxless Pairs rowing event with Steven Redgrave during the 1992 Olympics in Spain (Photo by Simon Bruty/Getty Images)

The IOC made this harder not easier. Too late to call a delay in 2020 and even then perhaps tipped over the line by New Zealand and Australia announcing that they simply wouldn’t send teams. Then too soon to announce a year’s delay to summer 2021. Thomas Bach, the IOC President, has been resolute in the face of Japan’s Covid struggles — it will happen and “there is no plan B”. 

But the truth is the IOC and the host city are caught in a financial fork they made. Were Bach to now cancel the Games, Tokyo would ask for some sort of financial help with the burden they have taken on. Billions on venues and staging all gone to waste. But if Tokyo or the Japanese government pull out of hosting, the IOC would enforce the multitude of clauses in the host city contract. Broadcasters and sponsors now need to be paid back for an event that you the hosts have reneged on. 

It will look superficially wonderful on television

So the 2020 Games lived on with a plan to fly thousands of people from all over the world into one city for a series of Olympic and Paralympic sports before sending them all back again. 

In May, the IOC brokered a deal with Pfizer for enough vaccines for the Olympic athletes to be distributed before arrival in Tokyo. It’s a wonderful step and one that we know will make the prospect of a Games safer. Yet when they, and we, do arrive in the host city we will be at a Games in a bubble. Not, as is usual, separated by fencing and security designed to keep everyone safe but this time by fencing and security designed to keep everyone safe from us. 

Masks, social distancing, strict hygiene protocols will be the order of the day. The Olympics is traditionally a huge celebration, athletes swept along by the jubilation of a city and country bursting with pride and excitement at the party on their doorsteps. It may not always be visible on our faces in competition, but people do have a good time at the Olympics.

But 2020 in Tokyo cannot be any of that. That dream departed more than a year ago. In some ways the Games will be the same — certainly it will look superficially wonderful on television. But for Tokyo, at least, it will be an uncomfortable and expensive charade flying in the face of current priorities and realities being felt the world over. 

I fear we’ll have to enjoy what atmosphere there is but ignore what’s going on outside the ropes and down the road. Those of us who remember it as it was will have to grit our teeth and smile. “So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past.”

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