TWO things are making the Games of the 32nd Olympiad in Tokyo look increasingly unlikely to go ahead.
One, a stubborn, shape-shifting Covid-19—which makes it hard on national Olympic committees to organise teams, amid an ongoing pandemic, to actively participate. Two, they’re games that a majority of the Japanese people polled don’t want, their national health service is leery about, athletes are fretting about, and about which the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is keeping everyone guessing.
Vaccination efforts are lagging in most countries and Covid-19 is resurgent, in ever deadlier waves with stronger variants. Many athletes haven’t been able to practice properly. The games are scheduled to be held in Tokyo in less than two-and-a-half months from now, July 23 to August 8.
Last year, in the teeth of a raging global pandemic, the IOC had to postpone Tokyo 2020 to 2021. Now even this coming July seems too soon. In a recent poll of Japanese citizens, 70 per cent said that they don’t want the games to go ahead.
One of the reasons is that Japan hasn’t beaten coronavirus as yet. Cases continue to rise, and a Covid-19 state of emergency has been extended in the capital Tokyo and three other large prefectures.
The organisers responded to the threat of the virus by barring spectators from outside of Japan, which if the games go ahead, would be a tremendous loss to the atmosphere, flavour and spirit of the games.
How else can a Guyanese in Athens, Greece, randomly sit next to two guys from Slovenia, who then told him how much they loved Jamaican sprinter Merlene Ottey, who had transferred her nationality and her representation to their small, southern European state? 2004. Only the Olympics.
Even without foreign spectators, the logistics of arranging thousands of athletes, coaches and officials from all over the world into bio-secure bubbles would be daunting. At the last games in 2016 in Rio de Janeiro, 11,238 athletes took part in 306 events in 28 sports. That’s not counting officials. For countries like Guyana, sending more officials than athletes to major games is not unusual.
Sports bubbles were in existence long before the current pandemic. In Beijing in 2008, we the journalists covering the Olympics could move between hotel and sports venue in our own, sealed world.
At a special exit at the hotel, the accredited and laminated-badged moved from metal detector/bag check, to shuttle coach, to special traffic lane, to venue. The hotel’s out-checkpoint was effectively the stadium’s in-checkpoint, even if they were 10km apart.
Only Olympic games-related vehicles could be driven in those specially designated lanes. We could leave the bubble, and I did to explore Beijing’s superb food. But journalists under brutal daily deadlines covering a large number of their country’s athletes in far-flung venues, basically shuttled between venue, news centre and hotel for three weeks, never leaving the bubble.
Although bio-bubbles are largely based on similar seal-in arrangements, they carry far more risk of disruption to the associated event if they are breached.
India, the worst affected country in the world right now by raw numbers, is a major competitor in hockey. Things are so bad with Covid-19, that cricket’s Indian Premier League had to be abandoned. How are they even going to field a team of Olympians?
It’s the IOC’s call on whether to pull the plug. And the uncertainty is getting on the nerves of athletes like Swiss tennis legend Roger Federer.
For T&T cyclist Nicholas Paul, a world record-holder in the Men’s Flying 200 sprint, the past year has been challenging. His supporters have banded together to raise funds for cycling equipment, in a sport not exactly awash with money. He deserves all the support he can get, T&T.
Paul is phlegmatic about having to wait an extra year, but in truth, he’s been waiting many years for his moment. It would be a blow if it is further delayed.
Those of us who chronicle these incredible events rather than competitively participate in them would also miss the games. Journalism isn’t a high-paying gig. The real payback is sitting trackside near the finish line of a men’s 100 metres final, to hear, see and feel the power and the glory. You’ll never forget those 10 seconds of your life.
Witnessing Usain Bolt’s thrillingly cocky and dominant Olympic emergence in Beijing. Being part of a media scrum thrusting a mic at LeBron James in London four years later.
Sometimes we get to properly meet our heroes. Back at my Beijing hotel late one night, I sat on the patio alone having a beer. At the next table was Donovan Bailey – the Jamaican born Canadian who had won gold in the men’s 100 metres at the ’96 Atlanta Olympics. He was covering for Canadian TV, and there with his crew.
He hailed me up. Come and join us, he said. I brought my chair over. “I’m Don”, he said, extending his hand. Don. Yeah right. We all chatted about the events we’d seen. Not one mention of his moment 12 years earlier. No airs, graces or celebrity chest-thumping. Just five guys drinking Heineken and talking sport.
The modern Olympic games have their problems—such as forcing host cities like Montreal and Rio into big debt, and building expensive facilities that have little or no use afterwards. But the Olympic games are special. Their likely loss in July would be sad.
• Orin Gordon is a communications consultant, on Twitter @oringordon.