Tokyo 2020 Olympic Rings by day
Tokyo 2020 Olympic Rings by day | (Photo by Etsuo Hara/Getty Images)

Olympics 2021 | Hope springs eternal in pandemic fight but Tokyo remains pipedream

  • XXXII Summer Olympiad scheduled to begin in Tokyo, Japan on July 23
  • Games pushed back 11 months due to 2020 Covid-19 pandemic
  • ‘Greatest Show on Earth’ still set to go ahead without fans, but concerns remain over existing spread of virus
TOKYO, JAPAN – With now five months to go until the flame is scheduled to be lit, there remains much uncertainty ahead of the Tokyo Olympics this summer


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As 2021 heads into the final month of what has been a bleak mid-winter, the impending arrival of March however, brings with it light at the end of the tunnel, in more ways than just the metaphorical.

With the Covid-19 pandemic now into its second year, the picture in the early throes of the new calendar year is looking decidedly brighter than it did 12 months ago, when Europe and indeed the world, was only starting to feel the ravages of a near-unprecedented global crisis.

Having emerged from a blanket of uncertainty and indeed anxiety last summer, sport has largely continued side-by-side with a very different visage to competition in all avenues, although very much not, hand-in-hand.

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As an increasing number of vaccines offer hope of a return to something close to normality, the sporting calendar is looking eagerly at playing catch-up, not least the postponed Tokyo 2020, now set for July this year.

But, as mutant strains have predictably complicated matters, hopes for a transitioned conclusion to the end of the most challenging global year since World War II have been rather stymied.

And, with just five months to go until the Games are slated to begin, are hopes of Japan hosting the XXXII Olympiad a reality, or are they still just a pipedream?


Challenges abound

The initial decision to shelve the Olympics last spring was one not taken lightly, but despite what was rumoured to be the most expensive summer Games to date, the global spread of coronavirus rendered a decision academic.

As the countdown clock tick towards July then, the existing challenge of ‘safe-proofing’ the competition for both athletes and teams involved is grand.

The biggest issue remains the evolving spread of the virus, and though the UK and Europe looks best positioned to have somewhat of a grip in controlling it, other nations are far behind in vaccination programs.

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Without getting too scientific, mutant strains of Covid surely present the biggest obstacle to negotiate however, and though trials of rapid and regular testing have been undertaken at both the Alpine and Nordic World Championships across Scandinavia this month, the Olympics will present the same set of obstacles, but on a far wider scale – not least travel.

As it stands, that element from country to country remains on a tight leash, but as they are lifted later this year, so surely the mass influx of numbers for an Olympics presents a perfect breeding ground for a respiratory virus, and complications will arise.

Then there is the issue of quarantine. Asia’s approach after the SARS outbreak has left the continent well set for this current wave of a novel virus, but nevertheless, the sheer numbers that will have to be tested and go through self-isolation in preparation, is daunting.


‘Clap but don’t sing’

Then there is the Games itself, should the two-week event go ahead as currently planned.

In accordance with what would be an unprecedented fortnight should they take place, the Tokyo committee have produced a ‘Playbook’, which flags up further potential problems.

The whole ethic of the Olympic movement is that it welcomes the world under one banner, but evidently, that will come in a very different format this time around.

Fan participation is surely another big problem set to face the sporting community, and should attendees stray from rules outlined, individuals risk having their right of attendance being withdrawn.

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Under a page titled “think hygiene” the Playbook says individuals should “support athletes by clapping and not singing or chanting”, so where does that leave the Games, where fan attendance is as essential?

A vaccination will not be compulsory for those attending the Games, although a negative Covid-19 test in the four weeks leading up to the event will be, while athletes will be be tested a minimum of every four days during the Games.

That alas, masks – no pun intended – the complications that could arise should competitors test positive; will events grind to a halt or will they simply continue on without said individuals?

With public transport greatly restricted also, movement around one of the biggest and most populated global metros, will also surely take ground-breaking measures.


Nobody ‘wholly confident’

Plans for the Games then continue unabated, but secretly, there remains significant doubt whether Tokyo 2020 will take place – either under the 2020 or 2021 banner.

One such voice of caution is held by Princess Anne, who insisted back in January, that whilst every effort is being made to deliver a Games that would surely be the most innovative on record, she recognizes that IOC members including herself, still retain concerns.

The Princess Royal, the British Olympic Association president and IOC member, feels the chances of the XXXII Olympiad taking place at least in some shape are good, but as she told BBC Sport, remains reticent to state her confidence that competition will go ahead.

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 “I don’t think anybody is wholly confident. I think we work on the basis that you plan for it, because, at the moment, particularly the Japanese are happy to work on that basis.

And I think that’s really good news because to be honest, they could have just said ‘no, this is too difficult, too expensive and we’re not going to do it’.

“So I think we’d be grateful that they’re keeping the door open and people should plan for that.”


Will the Games go ahead?

Evidently then, there is still much to do for the IOC to green light this summer’s Olympics, which almost unfathomably are now just five months away, such has been the experience of the past year’s tribulations.

With organisers bent on holding this summer’s event – before the cauldron can even be lit in the Tokyo Olympic Stadium in July –  the IOC and Japan will have been given plenty reason for optimism, following the successful conclusion of the Australian Open in Melbourne.

Despite an exhaustive and at times challenging travel and quarantine period – including a Holiday Inn Covid outbreak across the Victorian state capital – the 2021 edition passed by largely without incident and with few cases, before and after the two-week tournament.

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That will then, give officials huge hope for later this year, but with arrivals on a far grander scale and with countries with far less stringent restrictions in place, Japan is in danger of becoming something of a petri dish.

If that wasn’t enough, the resignation of Tokyo chief Yoshiro Mori in the wake of a backlash after inappropriate comments regarding female board members, has left the organising committee battling against a rising tide.

Perhaps though, the bigger question need be posed is if not this summer, then when?

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With Euro 2020 also playing catch-up – but likely to played in just one country now – sport is not standing still and nor should the IOC.

But that a makes a firm decision ever more vital.

Only once in its cycle has a Olympics being permanently shelved and that was in the wake of WWII. Is it simply that easy to just say ‘cancel it’? Plainly, no.

The logistics of this particular Games present a unique challenge themselves, and at some point in the coming weeks and months, tough questions will have to made. Those answers, potentially, could come with far more unwanted and sterner conclusions to come.


The XXXII Olympiad is scheduled to begin on Friday 23 July in Tokyo, Japan.


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