It has long been billed as the greatest show on earth. But many will see Tokyo 2020 as the world’s biggest gamble, with about 100,000 athletes, coaches, staff, officials and media descending on one city from more than 200 countries in the middle of a pandemic.
It was in this week last year that the Olympics and Paralympics were postponed by 12 months because of the crisis. Now, despite more positive cases and with less than four months to go until the rearranged Olympics opening ceremony in Tokyo, organisers say the show must go on. But how?
Here, The Mail on Sunday speaks to International Olympic Committee director Christophe Dubi and Team GB’s chef de mission Mark England about their plans.
The Mail on Sunday speaks to International Olympic Committee director Christophe Dubi (above) and Team GB’s chef de mission Mark England about their plans
THE PICTURE IN JAPAN
The Olympic torch relay finally got under way in Japan last week, a year after the flame first arrived in the country. It will last for 121 days and involve 10,000 runners, with roadside spectators only permitted from local areas and they must wear masks and avoid cheering.
The first Tokyo 2020 test event of the year — a wheelchair rugby competition — takes place next weekend. Yet the majority of the Japanese public remain against holding the Olympics and Paralympics this summer.
Japan has managed to keep deaths related to Covid-19 down to just 9,000. But coronavirus cases are rising steadily again across the country, with 2,074 reported yesterday, the highest levels since early February.
The Olympic torch relay started in Japan last week, a year after the flame arrived in the country
Japan has never had a mandatory lockdown and the state of emergency for Tokyo and surrounding prefectures was lifted last Monday. The country’s borders, though, remain shut and other measures, including mask-wearing, social distancing and restricted opening hours, are still in place.
There is also concern about the vaccine rollout in Japan. Frontline medical workers only started receiving jabs in mid-February and senior residents will not be inoculated until next month. The wider population are not expected to be offered the vaccine until July, the month the Olympics begin.
There will be no strict period of quarantine for anyone attending the Olympics and Paralympics, something Tennis Australia boss Craig Tiley said he ‘cannot see working’.
Tiley was speaking after organising the Australian Open, when more than 1,700 players and staff arrived on chartered flights and had to isolate for 14 days, only being allowed out to practise on court and exercise. Another group of 72 players were confined to their rooms in Melbourne after coronavirus cases were discovered on their flights.
However, when 11,000 Olympic athletes arrive in Tokyo this summer, they need only show proof of a negative Covid-19 test taken 72 hours before they travelled. After that, attendees have to complete an ‘activity plan’ for their first 14 days, detailing where they intend to travel and stay.
Tennis Australia boss Craig Tiley says he cannot see the lack of quarantining working
They are only permitted to go to official venues, training facilities and accommodation. They must not visit tourist areas, restaurants and bars, so there will be no post-event parties. Athletes are asked to only arrive at the Olympic village five days before competition and leave two days after they have finished.
Social distancing will be in place and physical contact is to be avoided. Using public transport is also banned. Any athlete who breaks Covid protocols risks being expelled from the Games.
‘We don’t have a strict quarantine, but an adapted one,’ says Olympic Games executive director Christophe Dubi. ‘We believe this is the best of both worlds, to keep everybody safe and allow athletes to do what they came for.’
Athletes will be tested every four days inside the Olympic village. The first playbook of Covid-19 protocols published last month states that anyone who tests positive ‘must isolate in accordance with the instructions of the Japanese health authorities, which may be in a government-approved isolation facility’.
What is not clear, however, is whether competitors will be thrown out of the Games after one positive test, a particular concern given the possibility of false positives. A decision on this will only be made in the final playbook in June.
Athletes will be tested every four days inside the Olympic village (file photo used above)
‘Work is ongoing with an expert panel that is looking into testing and the management of results,’ says Dubi. ‘What you want to make sure is that, come Games time, those false positives which can be very problematic are really minimised to a minute portion.’
Attendees must also download a contact-tracing app and close contacts of someone who tests positive will be immediately tested themselves.
Team GB’s Mark England adds: ‘Everything we’re doing is around making sure we have 370 athletes on the start line in four months’ time. Clearly there are still things that need to be worked through because what we can’t have is, you arrive in the country, have a false positive at the airport and you’re in a Japanese quarantine institution and your Games are over.’
VACCINES NOT MANDATORY
‘Vaccination helps but it is not a condition for the Games to be held,’ says Dubi, echoing the IOC line that athletes will be encouraged to get jabbed before the Games but it will not be compulsory.
As part of this drive, the IOC is working with the World Health Organisation’s COVAX sharing scheme to help distribute vaccines to poorer countries. They have also agreed a deal to buy extra doses from the Chinese Olympic Committee, but these will only be available to competitors from countries where Chinese vaccines have been approved for use.
Dubi says Covid vaccination helps but it is not a condition for the Olympic Games to be held
Dubi says: ‘If we can help athletes and delegations, this is fantastic. This is solidarity from the Olympic movement. We have to create the opportunities for athletes and delegations to be vaccinated.’
While the IOC insist athletes should not jump the queue for vaccines, that has happened in countries including Hungary, Lithuania and Mexico.
Team GB athletes, though, are still waiting in line. Based on the current pace of the UK’s rollout, most British competitors will have received their first jab before they travel to Japan but not their second. Team GB chiefs will speak to the Government about plans once all over-50s are inoculated by the middle of next month.
ZERO SPECTATORS FROM OVERSEAS
It was confirmed last weekend that no overseas spectators will be permitted at the Games. Organisers said 600,000 Olympic tickets and 300,000 Paralympic tickets had been sold to fans from outside Japan, but they will now be refunded as it was ‘highly unlikely’ entry could be guaranteed. About 3,000 fans were planning to travel from Britain, but even the families and friends of Team GB athletes will now have to stay at home.
England says: ‘Increasingly in the last 12 months, being in a bubble at overseas competition has become the norm, so there’s been a gradual acceptance. Now that we’ve had confirmation that overseas fans and athletes’ nearest and dearest won’t be in country, we can focus on planning something special for them back home in the UK.’
It was confirmed last weekend that no overseas spectators will be permitted at the Games
There were fears earlier this year that the Olympics would have to be held behind closed doors. Yet it now looks likely that domestic spectators will be allowed to attend. That is good news for the coffers of the organising committee, who had budgeted for an income of £580million from ticket sales.
A 50 per cent cap on venue capacity is being considered but a decision will be made based on Japanese government guidelines next month. Supporters who are allowed in will be urged to clap athletes but not sing or chant. Even without overseas spectators, 90,000 people from abroad are due to travel to Tokyo for the Olympics, plus more for the Paralympics.
The IOC hope to reduce this number by only giving accreditation to those with ‘essential and operational roles’, cutting the amount of officials and guests. Media presence will also be reduced.
The meticulous four-year plans of athletes have been thrown into disarray by the pandemic.
Many have been forced to train at home for months because of lockdowns, while qualifiers and warm-up events have been cancelled. Most difficult of all has been the fear that the Games could be cancelled.
‘There has been lots of uncertainty and that is never comfortable when you are planning for an Olympics,’ says England.
‘But we’ve moved on really significantly from, “Are the Games going to take place?” to “This is how they will take place”.’
Many athletes have been forced to train at home for months because of lockdowns
There remains a question over the integrity of the Olympics, given how some athletes will have found it much harder to prepare than others depending on restrictions.
But Dubi adds: ‘What I find amazing is the resilience of the athletes.
‘When you look at what happened in the Australian Open, Jennifer Brady reached the final and she was one of the athletes that had to hit the ball against the wall in her hotel room.’
As for Team GB, some of their stars have not competed internationally in months.
The all-conquering track cycling squad’s last competition was the World Championships in Berlin in February 2020.
To get rid of ring rust, they recently held a three-day event in Manchester in which they simulated the Games schedule.
‘That’s what’s making medal prediction very challenging,’ says England.
Britain’s world champion heptathlete Katarina Johnson-Thompson (above) says the Olympics will be won and lost on whoever has handled the pandemic the best
‘But that’s the same for the rest of the world. We are not at any particular disadvantage. We’ve had some pretty solid competition going on behind the scenes that we can be very encouraged with.
‘We’re not going to Tokyo just to take part. We are going with the view that the British team will be a very high-performing team and we expect to do the nation proud.’
Britain’s world champion heptathlete Katarina Johnson-Thompson said this week: ‘The Olympics will be won and lost on whoever has handled the pandemic the best.
‘There are going to be so many people who would have been champion but who aren’t going to be because of the pandemic.’
Just days before the Olympics were postponed last year, the IOC were still insisting they would take place as planned. So doubts about the Games are bound to linger while coronavirus is still reported in large parts of the world.
Both the Japanese government and the IOC, however, have already stated the Games would have to be cancelled outright this time if they cannot go ahead this summer. And all parties have too much to lose.
The final budget for the Olympics and Paralympics is £11.2billion, including £655m on coronavirus countermeasures. Broadcasters, who contribute three quarters of the IOC’s income, are also demanding that the Olympics happen.
The IOC say they have learnt a lot from the last year and take heart from how 270 world sporting events have been held involving more than 30,000 athletes since September. ‘Not a single one of those events turned into a virus spreader,’ said IOC president Thomas Bach.
Both the Japanese government and the IOC, however, have already stated the Games would have to be cancelled outright this time if they cannot go ahead this summer
But it is impossible to ignore the chaos at the Australian Open. And this month, the British athletics team had to quarantine following the European Indoor Championships after a staff member tested positive. Dubi adds: ‘When we have providers, organisers, countries asking, “What if?”, our answer is always around Plan As. Do we have several Plan As? Yes. But Plan As only. We’re planning several times for the same Games but in different conditions.
‘I am extremely confident [the Games will be delivered] because of the rigour of the approach, the detail, effort and the thoroughness of the work being done by everyone. It is daunting but it is doable. Will it be a Games as normal? No, because life is not as normal. So it will be an adapted Games but something monumental.
‘Can you imagine the goosebumps when you have that countdown to 10 at the opening ceremony and what that means for the world? I don’t know how to put words on that. Will it be special? Absolutely.’
TOO MUCH MONEY AT STAKE TO CANCEL
By Eriko Hagio
When the Olympics were awarded to Tokyo in 2013, I was pretty happy, and when I won a lottery for tickets to see karate at the famous Budokan, I felt lucky and thrilled and my friends were envious. Karate is making its Games debut and demand for seats was huge.
The Budokan was built to stage the judo at the 1964 Olympics and is the spiritual home of martial arts. In 1966 The Beatles became the first band to play there. And while I’ve only ever been there for gigs — David Bowie, Noel Gallagher — I was looking forward to being part of a special moment.
I won a lottery for tickets to see karate at the famous Budokan, I felt lucky and thrilled
When the Games were postponed, I was told I could keep my ticket or be reimbursed. I kept my ticket, and in an ideal world I’d like it to go ahead and be there.
Opinion polls here say a majority are against the Olympics happening and when you go on the internet, there’s a lot of noise, albeit led by a few loud, influential critics.
If there’s a deadly disease that will kill lots of people if you stage a sports event, you choose what saves lives. But we remain in limbo, with no certainty how safe it will be by the last week of July when the Games are due to start. I’d like them to go ahead if it’s safe then. It’s a real shame foreign visitors can’t come. The international party element in a host city is key to the meaning of an Olympics.
That Tokyo was under a ‘state of emergency’ until last week is paradoxical. Aside from advice not to go outside after 8pm, life seems pretty normal. I’m going to work, on my bike. I went to the movies last week. I recently went through [the famous shopping district] Ginza and so many people were out. Restaurants are open for lunch.
To say Toyko was in a state of emergency’ until last week is paradoxical, life seems normal
But Covid has been rising again. A couple of weeks ago there were 200 cases a day in Tokyo but it went up to 300 the next week and was 394 on Thursday. The Japanese government would never unilaterally say the Games shouldn’t go ahead. And the IOC were never going to cancel for one obvious reason: money.
The Games already have one legacy. That is the significant step forward in our society when Yoshiro Mori, head of the organising committee, resigned after his remarks about women talking too much.
If Mori had made the same remarks in a job where his views were only relevant to people inside Japan, he would never have gone. The world’s eyes being on Japan made his sexism actionable. And that’s a good thing.
l Eriko Hagio is a cultural events organiser in the diplomatic sector.