Tokyo Olympics 2020 organisers and IOC reiterate that Games will go on, but questions remain
Tokyo 2020 organisers and the IOC were vehement in their denial on Friday that a cancellation of the Games was on the cards. Yet, multiple questions remain as to how a sporting event of this magnitude can be held in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Japan marked the six-month countdown to the Tokyo Olympics in January last year with a firework display over the Olympics rings at Tokyo Bay. In sharp contrast, with Saturday marking the six-month countdown for the deferred Games, the Tokyo 2020 Organising Committee, the Japanese Government and the International Olympic Committee are likely to spend the new few days, maybe even months, firefighting after a media report in British daily The Times suggested that the Japanese government was considering cancelling the Olympics altogether.
Tokyo 2020 organisers and the IOC were vehement in their denial on Friday that a cancellation of the Games was on the cards. Yet, multiple questions remain as to how a sporting event of this magnitude can be held in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Much of the host country is in a state of emergency with the nation experiencing the third wave of coronavirus infections forcing the governor of the city, Yuriko Koike, to ask Tokyo residents to even don masks at home in December.
Not only have coronavirus cases in Japan, particularly Tokyo, increased sharply since the turn of the new year, the public backing for the Games seems to be on the wane. A Kyodo News survey earlier this month showed that over 80 per cent of Japanese favoured the Games being postponed or cancelled. Another postponement of the Tokyo Games is out of the question since 2022 already has the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, the Birmingham Commonwealth Games in July-August, and the Hangzhou Asian Games in September — events which cannot be pushed back. The 2024 and 2028 Games have been allotted to Paris and Los Angeles respectively.
Cancelling the Games, which have officially cost Japan $15.4 billion so far, will be a body blow not just to the Olympic movement but to the organisers as well.
Vaccines to the rescue, but…
In March last year, when the Tokyo Olympics and Paralympics were deferred by a year, the hope was that vaccines would arrive in time to effectively keep the coronavirus in check.
No vaccine manufacturer has been given approval in Japan so far with Pfizer’s vaccine expected to be the first, but only sometime in February. The Moderna vaccine is likely to get approval only around May.
As per a timeline by Japan’s Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, published earlier this week in a report on Yomiuri, the rollout of vaccines for the general public will start only in May after frontline healthcare professionals, and citizens in vulnerable categories are vaccinated. Japan’s ambitious plan is to vaccinate a majority of its population by the time the Games come around. Should Japan be able to stick to this timeline, it would go a fair distance in allaying fears among its population.
However, as per a study published in September last year in The Lancet, Japan ranks among nations with the lowest vaccine confidence in the world. “This might be linked to the human papillomavirus (HPV) vaccine safety scares that started in 2013, and following the decision by the Japanese Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare in June 2013, to suspend proactive recommendation of the HPV vaccine,” the report stated.
IOC president Thomas Bach stated in November 2020 in a press conference that athletes will not be forced to vaccinate before coming to Tokyo. The IOC will likely have to reconsider this stance, given that the perception of the Games among Japanese people is already low, and the arrival of over 11,000 athletes from over 200 countries (besides coaching staff, other officials, and media members) will add to the local population’s concerns about another wave of the coronavirus . At the same time, will the Japanese government be able to convince the local population to inoculate themselves even as they allow thousands of unvaccinated foreign athletes and officials to enter the country?
Besides, even if athletes are told that vaccinations are mandatory to compete at the Tokyo Games, it remains to be seen how countries could prioritise men and women at peak fitness levels over healthcare workers and others in vulnerable categories.
As part of the COVID-19 protocols, athletes will be allowed to arrive in Japan only five days prior to their events and must leave within 48 hours after their events conclude. Their movement will also be restricted to the Games Village, training venues and competition arenas.
In November 2020, Tokyo held a gymnastics test event with 30 athletes from four countries — Japan, China, Russia and the USA — called the Friendship and Solidarity Competition. Athletes coming from abroad were asked to quarantine at home for 14 days and subjected to PCR tests before boarding a chartered flight to Japan. Once in Japan, they were tested daily and told to stay in isolation in their hotel rooms in Tokyo. A report in Japanese media outlet NHK even stated that athletes from China arrived in full protective gear and refused to eat or visit the washroom during the roughly three-hour flight.
In 2020, Japan had stringent measures for people arriving in Japan from abroad, including 14-day quarantines. However, given the impracticality of forcing high-performance athletes to stay in their hotel rooms for 14 days before the biggest competition of their lives, this rule will be done away with for athletes at the Games, as per officials.
However, should international fans be allowed to attend the Games in Tokyo, will they also be exempt from mandatory vaccination and quarantines? Considering the perception battle at the hands of the IOC and the local organising committee, this might be the only way should the IOC decide to have international fans. This is a decision that the IOC is waiting on. The IOC has repeatedly referred to a toolbox of coronavirus countermeasures, but it is yet to become apparent what exactly these measures will entail.
In November, Bach told reporters that 57 per cent of quotas for the Olympics had been allocated. With many countries experiencing a surge in numbers of COVID-19 cases, and new variants of the virus emerging in the UK and South Africa, qualification tournaments for the remaining quotas have come under a shadow. On Friday, the Asian Champions Trophy hockey tournaments for men (to be held in Dhaka in March) and for women’s teams (to be held in South Korea in March-April) were postponed again due to coronavirus , highlighting how tricky organising even continental tournaments can be in the current scenario.
One of the biggest questions blinking at the organisers perhaps is whether to hold the Olympics behind closed doors or with limited fans in attendance.
The Friendship and Solidarity Competition in November 2020 included 2,000 fans and could be considered as a blueprint for how fans can be in attendance at the high-profile Olympics in July and the Paralympics afterwards. Fans were instructed to be masked at all times inside the arena and were also urged not to cheer.
Japan’s star gymnast, Kohei Uchimura, who is a two-time Olympic all-around champion, told reporters later: “I think we have to go from thinking we can’t hold the Olympics to how can we do it.”
Six months away from the Tokyo 2020 Opening Ceremony, that question still looms large over the Games.
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