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  • OpEd: World on the Brink - Tokyo and the Coronavirus Six Months on


    “The Opinionist” predicts Covid-19 will shape future of the Games – everything from how host cities are selected to where the Games are staged.

    Michael Pirrie, "The Opinionist". (Twitter)
    While the sporting world has been bingeing on the Michael Jordan “Last Dance” documentary, Tokyo has been dancing to a drama of survival and endurance like no other in modern sport or society.

    Organizers have now reached the mission-critical phase of planning that will determine the fate of the Games, and whether there will be enough capacity, safety, time and certainty for Olympic events to go ahead.

    This must be decided before the new integrated operational plan for the Games is locked down later this year.


    Tokyo’s Olympic options have narrowed even as the impacts of the pandemic have widened.

    The founding vision for Tokyo as a high technology sports and entertainment experience of the future has changed dramatically.

    I well recall the long list of challenges we confronted in organizing the London 2012 Games, from the deadly terrorist attacks that crippled the capital to the global financial crisis. These twin shocks required numerous extra layers of security and financial recovery planning.
    London during the 2012 Olympics.(Flickr)

    These challenges prompted some veteran IOC members to describe London as the most difficult planning environment for the Games in recent times.

    While the issues we confronted in London were indeed formidable, no Olympic host city or committee has faced the magnitude of Tokyo’s challenges.

    But it is impossible to negotiate with the coronavirus, which is in its own way also a weapon of mass destruction.


    The presence of a highly contagious disease has escalated Games safety concerns to levels never experienced before.

    The integrity of the Olympic brand and values are also dependent on measures taken to protect athletes at the Tokyo Games. This servers to highlight both the threat of the virus and scale of the safety challenge.


    The Olympic Games are the world’s biggest social, media and travel event as well as the biggest sporting occasion.

    Tokyo’s buildings and venues were constructed with materials and backup systems to survive earthquakes, typhoons, terrorist and cyber attacks -- but not an unseen enemy in the very air the people breathe.

    In just six months, the pandemic has devastated the world’s sporting capitals, exacting some of its heaviest tolls on former Olympic host and bid cities.

    These include Moscow, New York, Rio, and London, where soaring levels of death and disease have brought doomsday movie-like scenarios to life.

    The emergence of the pandemic in an Olympic year has shifted the focus from sport to survival.


    This means Tokyo 2021 must think and plan like an international medical committee as well as an elite sports organizing committee.

    Venue health plans must be completed as soon as possible to combat the virus.

    These include air-flow and filtration systems to prevent potentially fatal droplets of air from circulating inside enclosed venues, regarded as higher risk than outdoors sports settings.


    Olympic Games success loves predictability, preparation and certainty, but the virus continues to challenge the best medical minds and planning models.

    Social distancing is impossible in crowed venues. Planning for the physical separation of thousands of spectators, volunteers, athletes, officials, media, and support teams at hundreds of events in dozens of venues will require supercomputer-like calculations.

    The enormous challenge of planning the Games in the middle of a global pandemic was reflected in recent comments by leading Olympic Games strategist John Coates, who is overseeing Tokyo’s preparations for the IOC.
    The New National Stadium in Tokyo (IPC)

    Preparations for the Games were experiencing “real problems”, said Coates. The Australian was close to achieving a unique Olympic double, with Tokyo following his direction of the iconic Sydney Olympic Games.

    Many Olympic nations are struggling with extreme social, health, political and economic pressures, as well as limited access to sports facilities.

    While public health experts believe it will be increasingly difficult to proceed with the traditional Olympic model if pandemic conditions persist, sporting landscapes no longer look so barren.


    The world’s sports fields are starting to grow some green shoots as more cities and societies reopen.

    After months of sport on social media platforms, face-to-face competition has recommenced in some parts of the world.

    This includes the return of some of Europe’s furloughed football leagues in largely empty stadiums.

    The so-called “ghost games’’ -- part of an important sport and public health experiment -- have become the first new sporting phenomenon of the corona decade.

    Government leaders and medical experts have indicated that restricted spectator numbers could begin later this year.

    This paves the way for the return of some atmosphere and crowds with up to a third and maybe more of venue capacity.


    Getting the communications environment right will be essential in the months ahead.

    Key stakeholders need to be kept informed of emerging issues relating to their involvement in the Games, especially as these reach critical stages of discussion and decision-making.

    For Tokyo, this means filling the communications vacuum that preceded postponement of the Games.

    Critical targets and milestones need to be outlined in planning pathways through to the Games next year and updated frequently.

    Priority scenarios include a worsening of the pandemic either globally or in Japan, which could lead to a consensus that there are too many risks and uncertainties to proceed as planned.

    While channels for communicating sensitive Games information are important, the platforms are always secondary to the integrity of the decision-making process.


    While the IOC has provided unprecedented financial and institutional support to Japan, the pandemic will affect the Olympic landscape well beyond Tokyo.

    Health and safety could also be a major issue for athletes training for the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympic Games, in the country where the virus emerged.


    A smaller and more mobile and flexible model of the Olympic Games may be needed.

    This new Games model would reduce sports and competitors as well as risks and costs. It also would be easier to transfer to safer alternative locations pending a sudden host city catastrophe.

    It also might feature a limited number of core Olympic events based on infrastructure requirements and risks involved in different sports.

    After national qualifying championships, athletes could compete in preliminary finals in one or more continental cities before gathering in a designated host city for super gold medal events.


    The global recession means there likely will be fewer nations available to stage the Games.

    The IOC needs to target cities that have previously expressed hosting interest and can secure government funding for infrastructure, stimulus and recovery programs that can be adapted to Games events.

    Lighting of the flame ceremony held in Ancient Olympia, Greece.(Flickr)

    The planet’s best athletes are preparing to make a profound statement about the power of the human spirit to survive and push forward in a radically altered world.

    In Japan, the IOC has a government that has been immovable in its determination to stage the Games.

    Like NASA’s mythical Apollo 13 moon landing rescue mission, failure has not been an option.

    Homepage Photo: Tokyo 2020

    Michael Pirrie is a communications strategy advisor and commentator on international major events, including the Olympic Games. He served as Executive Adviser to Seb Coe, Chairman of the London 2012 Olympic Games Committee, and worked with the IOC Executive Office on high level Co-ordination Commission meetings for planning the London Olympic Games.

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