The 2020 Olympic Games, due to take place in Tokyo, were delayed by a year due to the pandemic. Sadly, it is looking increasingly likely that they’ll either be further delayed, or cancelled entirely.
COVID-19 has completely altered the sporting picture. Fans being in stadia is a strange thought. Isolation, regular testing, quarantining – there are all things that, a year ago, we didn’t think would be a part of the sporting picture. Now, they are commonplace.
The pandemic is still very much around us, and with the Olympics less than 170 days away, the Games are very much in doubt.
Japan itself is still seeing the effects of a major wave of the virus’ outbreak nationwide. A rise in the death rates, as well as the discovery of new strains of the so-called ‘UK variant’ of COVID-19 in the country suggests that a mammoth effort is going to be required to not only get the pandemic back under control, but stop the importation of the virus from around the world which, with over 200 nations and 11,000 athletes expected to take part, is going to be, frankly, a logistical nightmare.
As a nation, Japan is also some way behind in the vaccination effort. The Guardian reports that jabs are not expected in Japan until the end of February at the very earliest, and with the over 65s expected to all be vaccinated by April – a mammoth logistical challenge given the sheer size of this age group in the country (36 million or so), a short turnaround is likely to require a miracle of sorts.
The International Olympic Committee president Thomas Bach recently said that all parties were ‘fully united and committed to the safe delivery’ of Tokyo 2020 (as it will still be called). However, he also admitted – for the first time – that it may have to be without fans.
This is, though, to be expected. After all, we have watched sports for a significant enough time throughout this pandemic to know it is unlikely we will get fans back in to major stadiums without an increased risk of spread of COVID-19.
What is more of a concern is how, from an operational perspective, Japan can realistically expect to prevent the importation of the virus with so many international athletes expected to land in the country in the summer. In some cases, bio-secure bubbles have been used: the NBA and, closer to home, England Cricket Team, have used ‘bubbles’ to keep players safe. Quarantine measures are also an option, as has been seen in the Australian Open – though one might want to consider the ethical dilemma of forcing 11,000 athletes to isolate for a few weeks before the games in terms of the sheer mental health burden which could emerge from that. Not only this, but what about teams who need to train together to have any chance of effectively competing?
Delaying the Games further is seemingly not an option. The already-delayed 2022 World Athletics Championships and the Qatar World Cup are two major sporting events taking place a year later – is it really worth causing more calendar chaos for these Games? To the athletes, some of whom will have trained for four – now five – years for potentially their final Olympic Games before retirement, of course it may be. It is also something the IOC said was not going to happen: in a statement in March last year, said that the tournament was delayed, not cancelled, to dates ‘no later than Summer 2021‘. Things change quickly – this pandemic has shown that more than ever – but will they go back on their word on the date of the games or finally concede defeat?
The £8bn budget for the Tokyo Olympics – which is likely to have been exceeded given the delay – will be an important factor in any decision and all stakeholders will want to have come to a suitable decision on the matter which both deals with the issue of cost, public health and, fundamentally, the reputation of the Olympic Games.
It is worth noting that whilst the Games have never been postponed, Olympic Games have been cancelled before due to exceptional circumstances. The 1916 Berlin Olympics were cancelled due to the ongoing First World War, and indeed the 1944 games in London – and, incidentally, the 1940 games in Tokyo – were both cancelled due to the Second World War. Both London and Tokyo did eventually get the chance to host the Games, in 1948 and 1964 respectively, but these were not ‘rescheduled’ events, as such – instead they were completely new tournaments.
The Olympics going ahead would be incredible – I, for one, am looking forward to a mammoth summer of sporting fun – but the optimism in me is being quashed by the harsh realities of COVID.