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Monday, June 21, 2021

Citius, Altius, Fortius… Virus: Can the most challenging Olympics still be the greatest show on Earth?

Postponed last year, the Tokyo Olympics are set to begin next month under the shadow of Covid. The locals are wary, the athletes are anxious, the training sessions are truncated, and the restrictions are extensive. Less than 50 days to go, The Indian Express counts down

Written by Mihir Vasavda |
Updated: June 7, 2021 7:06:37 pm
Medal hopefuls (from left) P V Sindhu, Rio silver medallist; Sania Mirza, headed for her 4th Olympics; Asiad winner Neeraj Chopra; hockey captain Rani Rampal.

Rani Rampal is seen as a cerebral player, known to plot moves and strategies. She also loves her space. So, in early May, when the captain of the Tokyo Games-bound Indian women’s hockey team was forced into isolation after she tested positive for Covid-19, she got time to “think hockey”. The 27-year-old missed sweating it out on the turf to give her best on the Olympic stage, the dream outing for every hockey player. But while her teammates trained in Bengaluru, Rani would sit in a room alone, close eyes and teleport herself to Tokyo, where the Games will begin on July 23.

“I thought about being in the stadium, lining up against our opponents, how we would play against them, how I would play… We did not perform well at the Rio Olympics (finishing 12th out of 12 teams), so I kept thinking how can we improve?” Rani says.

Visualisation is a common technique sportspersons use to train their mind for a match. But the mental imagery Rani created went beyond the hockey pitch.

She pictured herself checking into an Olympic Village that would lack the usual buzz, imagined long queues at the airport, transport halls and cafeterias because of social distancing, and getting tested for Covid-19 every day.

“You wouldn’t want to go there and get surprised by anything. So I tried to prepare myself mentally for every situation,” Rani says. “These are going to be unusual Games.”

Unusual is one way of putting it. Jules Boykoff, the author of Olympians and Power Games: A Political History of the Olympics, wondered in his column in The New York Times if Tokyo Olympics would turn out to be the ‘Superspreader Games’.

***

There was another, more welcoming, moniker for the Tokyo Olympics, which were supposed to be held last year but got postponed because of the pandemic. When Tokyo, which also hosted the event in 1964, was awarded the Olympics in 2013, the city exploded with pride and dubbed it the ‘Omotenashi Games’ — Japanese for polite and gracious hospitality.

Explained

Why the Games

For the IOC, billions of dollars are at stake. A part of the revenue earned from conducting an Olympics is distributed to the sports federations that are a part of the Games. Sports like hockey, wrestling, shooting, sailing, etc depend on the money generated from the Olympics. For Japan, which has spent $15 billion officially on the Olympics, it’s also a question of national pride, with China set to host the Winter Olympics. Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga has staked a lot of political capital on the Olympics, with the country’s general elections scheduled soon after the Games.

However, amidst a fourth wave of Covid-19 and a slow vaccination drive, the pride has turned into paranoia and Tokyoites are trying to convey — ever-so-politely — that this isn’t the time to roll out the red carpet. With the opening ceremony a little less than 50 days away, 83 per cent of voters in an opinion poll conducted by one of Japan’s biggest newspapers and an Olympic sponsor, The Asahi Shimbun, said they are against holding the Games this summer. Doctors, corporate honchos and politicians have all joined in the chorus in the last few weeks.

But the International Olympic Committee (IOC) and the Japanese organisers — buoyed by the support from the US, European Union and China as well as the athletes, none of whom has withdrawn so far — are pressing ahead. “Tokyo and Japan have accepted an unprecedented challenge,” the IOC said in a statement.

The body, which at 206 has 13 more members than the United Nations, hasn’t flinched also because it knows well that such hysteria is now a dubious Olympic tradition.

In 2004, Athens was so far behind in preparations that there were genuine fears if the Games would go ahead until the Olympic flame was actually lit during the opening ceremony. Four years later, the concerns over Beijing’s pollution reached such ridiculous levels that some American athletes asked their physiologist Randy Wilber if they should “run behind a bus and breathe in the exhaust”. Months before the Rio Olympics in 2016, Brazil president Dilma Rousseff got impeached while the organisers grappled with the Zika virus and raced against time to complete the venues.

“(But) there is no question that the countdown to the Tokyo Games is the most challenging of any in Olympic history because of the pandemic,” Michael Payne, the former marketing director of the IOC, told The Sunday Express. “It’s ironical in some ways because the IOC was probably looking to organise a simple Games.”

Japan, in many ways, was seen as a safe choice because of its past experience of hosting big events and an impeccable reputation of delivering on time. For these Olympics, the venues were complete almost a year in advance, rare for any major competition, the city was decked up to host 180,000 people from overseas and the domestic sponsors contributed a record $3.3 billion, twice as much as any Olympics in the past, as per the Associated Press.

Then, the pandemic hit. The Olympics got postponed. And the wary public gradually turned its back.

***

Siegfried Aikman, the coach of Japan’s men’s hockey team, experienced three weeks ago what it is like to enter Tokyo, which is in a state of emergency.

“I needed two negative Covid-19 tests before leaving from the Netherlands, my home country. When I arrived in Japan, I had to undergo another test. After that, I was sent to a hotel for three days to quarantine. They had security in the corridor to make sure I did not leave the room. Three days later, one more test was conducted and only after that was negative, I was sent home (his base in Japan) in a special cab so that I do not mix with the citizens,” Aikman, 62, told The Sunday Express.

It didn’t end there. Aikman was closely monitored to ensure he completed the remainder of his 14-day quarantine at home. “Twice every day, at random hours, they would confirm my location using the track-and-trace app. I was warned if they were not able to track me to my location. They would first make a video call. If I wouldn’t respond, they would send the police. And in case of violation of the rules, I was warned, I would be deported back home.”

The 10,000 athletes who will descend upon Tokyo next month will be spared such rigorous rules. They will be exempt from quarantining but will be tested every day. They have been ordered to not use public transport and tens of thousands of other Games-related officials have been urged to eat takeout meals alone in their hotel room so that the foreigners do not come in touch with the locals.

The restaurants, shopping districts, ancient temples and nightclubs will all remain out of bounds. The scramble at one of the world’s busiest intersections, the Shibuya Crossing, will come to a halt so that the sanctity of the bio-secure bubble is not violated.

An “important part” of these countermeasures, the IOC said, is vaccination. “As part of the plans to ensure safe and secure Games, the IOC announced on 6 May 2021 the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) with Pfizer Inc and BioNTech SE to donate doses of the companies’ Covid-19 vaccine to Games participants from National Olympic and Paralympic Committees around the world,” the IOC told The Sunday Express in a statement.

Thomas Bach, the IOC president, recently said around 80 per cent of the athletes will be vaccinated.

The 131 Indian athletes who have qualified, or were in contention, as of May 20, have received at least one dose of Covid-19 vaccine without having to rely on the IOC quota. The Indian Olympic Association has said the entire contingent, expected to be around 200 athletes and officials, will be given both doses before leaving for Tokyo in mid-July.

On June 3, reviewing preparations for the Olympics, Prime Minister Narendra Modi said at a meeting that every need of the sportspersons, from vaccination to training, will be fulfilled as a top priority. He also said he would be connecting with India’s Olympics contingent through a video-conference in July to wish them, while officials said such calls would be regularly organised throughout the Games of players with their family members back home, to keep them motivated.

Aikman believes these measures taken by organisers and individual nations will eventually change the prevailing sentiment on the ground in Tokyo. “Wherever we go, people are telling us, ‘make us proud’,” he says. “In the city of Matsuyama, they are going to put up giant screens so that people can watch the Games together.”

***

But in most Japanese cities, such enthusiasm seems missing.

At least 31 towns that were to host overseas athletes for their pre-Games training have backed out due to fears that it would spread the virus in the local community.

Kurobe, a city roughly 400 km from Tokyo, was gearing up to host some Indian athletes. It had held a massive cultural sensitisation drive over the last year-and-a-half, celebrating Indian festivals, conducting yoga workshops and releasing stamps to honour the visiting team. But they are now believed to be reconsidering, like most other places across Japan that the Indian teams were planning to make their base before the Olympics.

This is set to throw into turmoil the already ravaged training programme of the country’s athletes. A total of 126 have received financial assistance to prepare for the Tokyo Olympics, including an out-of-pocket allowance of Rs 50,000 per month each, under the government’s flagship Target Olympic Podium Scheme, launched in 2015. But in the recent months, most plans have hit a roadblock.

In the last few weeks, the offices of the Sports Authority of India (SAI) and Ministry of Youth Affairs and Sports have virtually become an arm of the Ministry of External Affairs as they engage with different embassies to secure visas for Indian sportspersons.

Because of the scary spike in infections due to the second wave in India, countries one after another, including Japan, shut doors on travellers from India. Consequently, the athletes who are desperate to travel abroad for training and competition have been stuck in the country, leading to considerable psychological stress.

The excitement of taking part in the Olympics has given way to anxiety. “It is getting difficult because along with training, I need competition. Most of 2019, I missed because of injury, and in 2020 and 2021, nothing has happened because of Covid. How long will one be patient?” a visibly frustrated Neeraj Chopra, 23, the national record holder in javelin and the Asian Games gold medallist, said at a media interaction organised by the SAI.

Archers, jumpers, shuttlers, wrestlers, paddlers, tennis and hockey players… all find themselves in a similar predicament. The Indian contingent, projected to land a ‘record’ medal haul in Tokyo by Olympics analysts Gracenote (the country’s highest is 6 medals, at London 2012), is now starved of competition, making it difficult for them to gauge their readiness.

“At these Olympics, anybody can beat anybody, like we have seen in tennis, because of the lack of matches and preparation,” says Imran Mirza, father of tennis star Sania, whose quest for a maiden Olympic medal has been hit by the travel restrictions.

The competition field in Tokyo will further deplete if players start to pull out. Earlier this month, American tennis legend Serena Williams said she might not travel to Tokyo if she is unable to bring along her daughter, three-year-old Olympia. The organisers have put a ban on overseas spectators, including families of athletes.

Sania, whose application for a visa for her two-year-old son Izhaan to accompany her to the UK for the grass-court season was fast-tracked by the government, will compete at the Olympics regardless. “In Tokyo, it is a question of 10 or so days so she can travel without her son,” Imran says. “Sania is committed to taking part in the Olympics. They hold a special place for her.”

She could become the first Indian woman athlete since shiny Wilson (1984-1996) to compete in four Olympics.

***

To get an idea of just how unusual these Games, and the build-up to it, are, one simply needs to peek into the bags of India’s shooting team.

Thanks to the large-hearted Croatian shooter Petar Gorsa, who helped with the logistics, and swift decision-making by the National Rifle Association, the shooters hopped on to a flight to Zagreb in mid-May, where they will practice until the second week of July before flying directly to Tokyo.

Apart from rifles, pistols, thousands of ammunition and other gear, the shooters are carrying with them steamers, immunity-boosting vitamins, turmeric to mix with milk, and spices to make Ayurvedic kaadha. “I’ve never carried any of these things with me before,” pistol shooter Rahi Sarnobat said before her departure.

For the next few weeks, the numbers that reflect in oximeters and thermometers, which they are also carrying, will be as crucial, if not more, as their scores. The organisers have instructed that athletes should not travel to Tokyo if they show any Covid-19 symptoms 14 days before their departure.

“We all will have to take care of each other and prepare together,” Gorsa says. “Hopefully, the situation will improve and we will be able to compete in Tokyo.”

Payne tries to soothe the nerves. “It’s understandable that people are nervous,” says the IOC veteran, who released his book on the Olympics, Toon In, on June 3, to mark the 50-day countdown.

“The moment the sport starts, the moment the opening ceremony begins, then the focus is rightly on the athletes. And that’s what everybody remembers.”

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