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When a year is not long enough to ensure Tokyo Olympics’ hustle-and-bustle

The prevalent situation in the world with a Covid-vaccine still not firmed up and the virus erupting like a rash, puts an almighty question mark on the deferred dates of the Olympic Games.

Written by Shivani Naik | Mumbai | Updated: June 19, 2020 1:47:03 pm
The Olympics is scheduled to open on July 23, 2021. The Paralympics follow on August 24. (Express Illustration: Suvajit Dey)

Tokyo’s pandemic monitoring authorities recently put restrictions on singing, dancing and playing music loudly at nightclubs for the high decibel would compel customers to talk louder over the din, and risk spreading the virus through respiratory droplets. Though Japan lifted its health emergency on May 25, a spike of 48 Covid-19 cases in a single day – including two dozen from the nightlife neighbourhood – sent authorities scurrying fearing another breakout of infection.

Sport’s most joyous party – the Olympics, now tiptoes towards its scheduled Tokyo date.

For, imagine an Olympic athletes’ village with 10,500 residents and at least the same number of officials and support staff. With the world trooping in from every distant part of the globe, the enormity of troubleshooting needed to pull off the gigantic Olympics amidst this pandemic becomes ominously clear. More than a year from a postponed Tokyo Games scheduled for July-August 2021, murmurs have started about another deferral.

Japan Today quoted Haruyuki Takahashi, an executive board member of the organising committee, on Tuesday: “The main priority is to make a united effort to hold the Olympics in the summer of 2021,” failing which, “we should start action once again to get another delay.”

While IOC chief Thomas Bach has categorically said no Plan B exists and Japanese premier Shinzo Abe has stated that 2021 is the only option, the prevalent situation in the world with a vaccine still not firmed up and the virus erupting like a rash, puts an almighty question mark on even the deferred dates of the Games.

While athletes have been urged to carry on their preparations keeping July 23, 2021 as the target, a realistic assessment throws up doubts, which puts the spotlight on the March 2021 deadline to determine if the Games can take off as promised.

A view of the Olympic Village which is set to house some 10,500 athletes and others during the games. (File Photo)

John Gloster of Indian Premier League franchise Rajasthan Royals, who is tied in with the sports set-up of Australia’s Deakin University, reckons that nothing less than “zero cases in the host country” will be a pre-requisite for the Games to get going with the large-scale sporting operations kicking off currently being closely followed. “Safety is the biggest concern for all athletes. So if the games are to go ahead, there have to be zero cases or zero new cases in the host country. If you look at Australia, there are virtually zero new cases in the last three to four weeks. I think there has got to be a period of zero cases for an extended period of time so that they can demonstrate control, particularly in the host city,” Gloster says.

The World Health Organisation will be consulted by the International Olympic Committee, even if expecting zero cases worldwide would be a bit far-fetched. “But there would need to be an element of global control absolutely before the games went ahead so the same policy would still apply where every athlete coming in from a country where there are still active cases would need to go to the quarantine, testing etc,” Gloster adds.

A Games Village factoring in risks at dining halls that seat thousands, shared rooms, shuttle buses between venues while athletes attempt to train ahead of their event and hit peak performance needing the usual peripherals of trainers and masseurs, with even one infection capable of throwing the whole clockwork into disarray, has far too many variables to control – tough even for the efficient Japanese. The hope of a vaccine is on the horizon, but Gloster cautions about even the best-case scenario, when one becomes available.

“Japan will have to enforce what we call judicious care: when holding large events like Olympics, a directive will need to go out from the IOC that in order to compete, you will compulsorily need a vaccination so that other athletes are protected,” he explains. Tennis has seen some big names resistant to the idea of a vaccine, and Gloster states that the details will have to be thrashed out by the Tokyo organisers.

READ | The WHO and why behind the Tokyo Games rescheduling

There is no fool-proof mechanism to testing because you can be tested negative on one day and the next day come into contact with someone or a surface that is contaminated and lead to a positive case. “Hence, the stress on zero active cases in the host country. Similiar to Australia and New Zealand. They waited till there have been virtually zero active cases. South Australia even having had zero active cases still had their borders closed for a month,” he informs.

David Shilbury, Professor, Sport Management and Director, at Deakin, while reiterating that health officials would be best placed to decide, insists that it’s tough one to pull off. “It is hard to imagine the Olympics proceeding without the virus under control throughout the world, or that some countries do not participate based on some criteria that suggests COVID-19 is not under control in a country. Ultimately, the assessment would have to be based on whether a healthy athletes’ village can be maintained… an athletes’ village is akin to the cruise ship difficulties seen during COVID-19,” he says.

For Japan, delaying the Olympics has posed economic, political and logistical challenges no other nation has ever faced before. (Source: AP Photo)

Naturally, the postscript of a 2022 spectre cannot be a short scribble, considering a postponement is already setting Japan back by $2 billion to $6 billion. “If the Summer Games cannot take place in 2021, they will be cancelled,” Shilbury says. “There’s Winter Games due in 2022 and it’ll be too much of a draw on sponsor support and broadcasters and expenditure to cover both in the one year,” he says.

Add to the Beijing Winter Games the FIFA World Cup, Commonwealth Games, and Asian Games, plus a bunch of World Championships that’ll see several international federations keep a worried eye on their own revenues for sustenance, even if the Olympics is the biggest show on earth.

“To delay an Olympic by two years is significant because then do you delay the following one to 2026 or stick to 2024?” Gloster opens the worm can.

Two years potentially could mean many athletes nearing the end of their careers around 2020 won’t probably be seen in 2022, so the whole qualification system will need a churn. “Then you got to say, well we just go for the next one to 2024. Big decisions will be made, but if 2021 doesn’t happen, I really just don’t see logistically that 2022 will be a viable option,” Gloster says. Both postponement and cancellation will bleed losses, and these are not even the worst losses that Covid-19 is inflicting given its human toll. Olympics will be caged into perspective, come 2021.

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